Late night pho king
Sacramento, CA 95814
Wayside Noodles is Vietnamese fast-food on several levels.
First, whatever is ordered—whether it’s a com or bun dish, hu tieu, pho or banh mi—it comes to the table with astounding rapidity. Part of the reason is advance preparation. The three crisp and crunchy cucumber rolls, a vegetarian rice-paper-wrapped appetizer with peanut dipping sauce, appears too quickly to have been anything other than removed from the refrigerator.
Signs of advance prep are elsewhere, too: Two lines of five heaping plates of basil, sprouts, jalapeños and lime wedges are ready to accompany any pho or hu tieu, a South Vietnamese noodle soup that is cousin to North Vietnam’s pho. It’s easy to visualize a kitchen assembly line beginning with monstrous simmering cauldrons of the pho’s beef-based broth and the hu tieu’s pork broth. Next, the ruthlessly efficient chefs ladle the broth into bowls, then move down a lengthy row of tubs containing tai, nam, gau, gan, sach—rare steak, flank, fatty brisket, chewy tendon and feathery tripe, respectively—plopping in whatever the customer calls for.
A $6.25 medium bowl of the pho containing all five types of beef is plenty for one. It’s nearly impossible to fail at pho, since the chefs lay the foundation, but the diner has the freedom to build on it, both when ordering and, more importantly, after it shows up at the table. A request for extra onions is readily agreed to, but the pho doesn’t really go phenomenal until it receives the addition of a clutch of basil leaves, a fistful of sprouts, some squirts of lime, the limes themselves, a baker’s dozen of the sweetly pungent pickled jalapeños and chunks of garlic that are part of each table’s cadre of condiments. Followed by a couple strong glugs of sriracha, natch.
Wayside Noodles has three locations. Its newest is at J and Eighth streets in the former home of Fuzio Universal Bistro. Other than the absence of the large bar formerly at its rear—liquor license soon, the waitress pledges—the space is eerily unchanged. Same red walls, same line of royal-blue, tulip-shaped lights along the counter of the open kitchen. Like some Twilight Zone episode where a patron walks into an old haunt and it’s been mysteriously transformed into something wholly alien.
The open, high-ceilinged Fuzio space is a plus. One of the strong draws of Vietnamese food is its lightness and freshness, both of which are better enjoyed in an airy interior. Fuzio’s demise came from lack of nighttime business; Wayside stays open until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Alacrity aside, Wayside offers fast-food. The nuances of Lemon Grass’ Mai Pham’s Shaking Beef or Monk’s Curry aren’t present. Wayside is straightforward without adornment. A number of Vietnamese restaurants offer more varied plates of garnishes to pop into the pho. Cabbage and spearmint are often added to the mix. Culantro, or ngo gai, a cousin of cilantro, is in the pantheon. Not here. Just the basics, thanks.
For example, the Wayside All the Way is a bun—vermicelli—dish of shrimp, egg roll and, in this case, pork. The egg roll is undistinguished as are the two forlorn, on-the-smaller-side grilled shrimp atop the mound of cool noodles. The thin slices of pork are joined and appear to come in sheets that can be grilled in one large piece and then be torn into smaller rectangles. However, the pork has a rich, sweet, almost caramel flavor; the tiny red chili bits boost the heat; and pouring the remainder of the dipping sauce over the top makes for a swell $7.50 lunch. The stir-fried com thit xao xa ot—rice with lemongrass beef or chicken—has a stealthy spice that leaves lips tingling without eyes watering.
Depending on the waitress, the food may come swiftly, but not always the check. And for a place with myriad entrees, it’s odd the drink options are fairly limited. There’s the inevitable avocado shake but no lemonade with soda, fresh-squeezed or otherwise, a Vietnamese stalwart. Probably just part of the fast-food thing.