Good pho lunch
Pho Xe Lua5331 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95820
The new restaurant Pho Xe Lua’s location on Stockton Boulevard, next to a Budget Inn, doesn’t quite prepare one for the foyer: a fountain of rock lining two walls with a long skinny pool underneath, water sliding down and colorful little parrots and other tchotchkes set among the rocks. Then you round the corner into the main dining room, which features a large statue of a golden bullock with a kid riding it, faux banana trees, near-mural-sized paintings of scenes of Vietnamese life and a flat-screen TV showing pop stars in a format that looked very much like a sort of Vietnamese American Idol.
This spacious, bright interior distinguishes Pho Xe Lua from a lot of other pho joints, but the menu is much the same, though it offers more Chinese-American dishes than you might expect. There’s a section of the menu devoted to chow mein, and there are all the basics: cashew chicken, kung-pao chicken and Mongolian beef.
I skipped those and went straight to the pho, which comes with the usual array of meats. In mine—the inaptly named “small” portion—swam slippery tendon, deeply beefy flank steak and thin slices of steak. The latter was designated rare on the menu, but was well-done immediately in the hot broth. Although the broth was aromatic, with anise and cinnamon spices, I felt the flavor could have been more rounded: It lacked the almost sweet top note that you find in some pho broth. Still, it was a perfectly nice bowl of soup.
An appetizer of fresh spring rolls with shrimp and pork was a little bland and dry, with sticky, perhaps not-quite-fresh rice wrappers. I’d have liked more herbs rolled up with the lettuce, but the sweet, zingy peanut sauce was pleasant.
My friend ordered bun (rice vermicelli noodles) with pork and egg rolls. Here, the pork was less caramel-sweet and chewier than at some places I’ve tried, but it had a pleasant flavor. The egg rolls were fresh and crisp, with wheat-flour wrappers. The dish’s distinguishing characteristic was that it was garnished with the widest carrot slices (cut into flowers) my friend and I had ever seen. They must have come from carrots specially bred to feed mutant bunnies. On another visit, my husband also got bun—this time with everything, including fish-saucy, pink-pork meatballs and bright-yellow marinated, grilled shrimp—and it was missing the giant carrots, but still had a nice freshness and plenty of tender herbs.
On my second visit, I also wanted to try the dinner plates, so I asked about the house special seafood clay pot, and the answer was not very illuminating: mixed seafood and tofu in a, well, clay pot. Then I asked which the server liked better: that or the catfish in a clay pot. She looked at me and shook her head: “Oh, no, I think Americans don’t like catfish,” she said.
“Is it the kind with the caramel sauce?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
I said that I liked it, and that we would take an order. Somehow, the mixed seafood and tofu sounded less promising and more similar to the Chinese-American dishes on the rest of the menu. Besides, I took being warned off the catfish as a good sign.
When it arrived, it was a deep, dark version of the classic dish, with the caramel sauce burnt black and bubbling on the edges of the well-used clay pot and the thick, coffee-colored sauce around the fish walking a tightrope between burnt bitterness and sweet caramelization. It had a deep, pleasantly salty fish-sauce savor that soaked completely into the fish itself. The fish was cross-cut into thin steaks (like a salmon steak) and still had some sharp bones lurking within, but sucking the flavorful flesh off of them was easy enough, and the bones lent body to the whole dish. The fish itself was perfect at first, but as it lingered in the molten-hot sauce it became just a little tough from overcooking.
The stir fry of lemongrass chicken was a lavish portion of tender meat, with lengths of green-onion tops plus onion slivers over steamed rice. It was a bargain at $5.50. The menu had promised it would be spicy, and it was, with big slices of jalapeño studded throughout the dish, offering not just heat but also fresh green flavor. Another flavor dimension came from the ultra-thin slices of lemongrass that were thickly sprinkled in; they also added a bit of nicely fibrous texture that released even more citron-y aroma as I chewed.
My husband ordered a coconut shake. On the sweet side, it was nevertheless one of the finer examples of its breed that I’ve encountered. It tasted fresh, with tiny bits of chewy young coconut in the icy slush. The restaurant also makes a mean iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk—and by “mean,” I mean that it will have your nerves a-jangling with caffeine all afternoon, but in a good way, if you are greedy or foolhardy enough to drink it all, as I was. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go there for lunch; it’s a good stop, where you’ll find a tasty lineup of the usual Vietnamese specialties, friendly (if occasionally over-cautious) service and, of course, all the caffeine you can handle.