Hostess knows best
Sacramento, CA 95820
Boon Boon Cafe is an unusual place, full of paradoxes: The location (Broadway and Stockton) seems like it would be easy to find, but it’s surprisingly difficult to spot (southwest corner, awkward parking lot). That same location might suggest Asian food, and there’s plenty of that on the eclectic menu—but also a range of American and placeless sorts of dishes like tuna alfredo (I don’t know what that’s all about) or the “Southern Great Steak,” which the menu describes as “a recipe from a Southern attorney.” The name is a little odd, too: Does it mean boom boom, but a little, I don’t know, different? Or a really great gift? Did they just like how it sounds?
The back of the menu, which sports a lengthy story of the restaurant, resolves some of these apparent contradictions. “We are people,” it says, “who love quality food and don’t believe it should be forced into categories such as Japanese, Thai, American or Italian.” Mission accomplished, given that the menu veers from paprika french fries to chicken samosa to a spaghetti and meatballs recipe “from Copenhagen” to tom kha gai soup to pho to pork bulgogi.
The attitude at the restaurant seems to be as inclusive and expansive as the menu. Granted, there weren’t many people there at the lunchtime service when I visited, but everyone was getting a lot of personal attention, including lengthy what-to-order consults—not from the server (ours was slightly inarticulate but very friendly) but from the more knowledgeable person he fetched from the kitchen to describe the food. When I asked about the eight-hour roast pork, out she rushed to describe the flavors and compare its merits to those of the crab fried rice. As it turned out, those two dishes are the two most popular at the restaurant, and you can kind of see why based on the menu description.
We started off with the chicken samosas—two daintily sized little fried pastries, with a duskily spiced potato filling that wasn’t too hot, but had a nice complexity. The golden not-too-greasy crust had that friable, tender yet yielding crunch that is characteristic of samosas. The only trouble was that it was difficult to detect much chicken in them; I found a little piece or two, but they were mostly potato-filled samosas. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I was expecting more chicken.
We also wanted a salad, and originally ordered the fresh salmon salad, described as having spring greens with citrus wasabi—it’s apparently a composed Japanese-style salad. I wouldn’t know firsthand, because when our order hit the kitchen, the menu doyenne came out for a consult: The salmon, alas, was not fresh, and we would be well-advised to order something else. She steered us firmly in the direction of the mieng kum, a special for the day. (My inquiry about the peanut salad with mixed greens, fried tofu, vegetables and peanut dressing met with a subtle, pursed-lipped shake of the head.) Spinach leaves were topped with sweet coconut, aromatic lime bits, ginger, peanuts and so on. They wrapped into fragrant and flavorful little bundles, but the less-than-fine chopping of everything made them a little less refined than what I’ve tried elsewhere. Still, they made a nice light starter and showed off the kitchen’s ability to balance flavors.
I ended up ordering the crab fried rice: The menu brags of its use of “100% pure lump crab meat, no claw mixed,” and our hostess spoke highly of it. It was indeed a pleasant dish, full of subtly sweet crab meat—but, oddly, no big chunks; the meat was mixed in so that it broke into its little threads. That distributed the flavor nicely through the whole dish. Light and fluffy, the rice was presented in a well-shaped mound, with colorful vegetables dotting it and a delicious ocean-sweet fragrance; it made a filling but not-too-heavy lunch.
My fellow diner tried out the spicy basil beef: ground beef tossed with a garlicky Thai-style stir-fry sauce, chilies, sweet peppers and leaves of basil. (I’ve often seen a similar dish, made with ground chicken, in area Thai restaurants.) Accompanied with rice, it was savory and saucy, the beef’s robust red-meat character counterbalanced by the chilies.
Boon Boon falls down a bit in the drinks department, with nothing as fresh or interesting as their cooking; it’s mostly your basic fountain drinks, and I wished for fresh lemonade or a sweet iced coffee. Instead, to end the meal, there are a few desserts, the most intriguing of which was a sweet Malaysian roti. (There’s also flan, mango and sticky rice, strawberry shortcake and more.) I’ve had Malaysian-style roti before in a savory iteration and can’t resist the griddle-toasted, oily, layered flatbread. Here, it got an extra hit of sugariness, plus a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk; it was simple and maybe not so sophisticated, but yummy. Boon Boon is a quirky little place, but it’s worth trying—and chances are, whatever sort of cuisine you’re in the mood for, they can fix you up. Just be willing to take advice.