Pho King 2: Crazy-delicious town
Pho King 26830 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95823
Although Little Saigon is arguably Sacramento’s premiere culinary asset, many of the Vietnamese restaurants on that particular precious strip of Stockton Boulevard exhibit a samey-samey quality. You’ve got your bun, you’ve got your pho and you often have a menu that’s half Chinese (of which it’s usually wise to steer clear). Occasionally, there’s a place that specializes in chicken pho or banh mi, but real variety is often hard to find.
Unless you visit Pho King 2, which has those aforementioned dishes.
The restaurant’s pho, with its full complement of meats (eye of round, rare steak, tripe, tendon and meatballs), is heavily redolent of star anise. The rare steak is piled carefully onto the pho, so it remains raw in the center, and you can either dunk it in the hot broth or eat it bright pink. The tendon is perfect: small and melts in your mouth with a mild flavor. All in all, it’s good but run-of-the-mill—despite its name, this is not a pho destination.
The bun is similarly standard. The charbroiled pork does not approach the fat-rimmed perfection of the ne plus ultra: Huong Lan Sandwiches. I order the version with both the grilled pork and nem nuong, which is a bright-pink, lightly vinegared fermented Vietnamese sausage, usually with a strong garlic flavor. Pho King 2’s is short on garlic but long on porky flavor, and I wish it was served with more than four slices.
The bun bo hue (a spicy beef-lemongrass soup that is the restaurant’s most popular dish), however, is a surprisingly delicate execution of a normally gnarly soup. The bowl is laced with bright-red chili, and it packs a pleasant punch, but the broth itself is clear and elegant. Again, it has the chewy eye of round, but with the addition of a slice of hog leg, cha lua (steamed ham loaf) and blood cake. It’s served, as is customary, with the flabby, large rice noodles that call to mind school-spaghetti lunches of yore.
PK2 takes a left turn into crazy-delicious town with its salads. The list of options sits quietly at the end of the menu, unheralded as a dac biet (specialty), yet it’s indeed special.
One off-the-menu salad (available on request) features rectangles of cold, pink tendon, pretty as candied fruit. It’s smothered in pickled daikon and carrot, crunchy garlic chips and peanuts, delicate shreds of purple cabbage and white onion, and abundant rough-chopped Thai basil and cilantro. The dressing, served on the side, is a sweet fish sauce swimming with raw, minced ginger; I recommend you drench it. I had this dish on a brutally hot day, and it cooled as well as any fan could have.
The chicken salad is composed identically to the tendon, but the dry shredded breast meat on the top is, conversely, boring as hell. I didn’t even know Vietnamese places served breast meat; I imagined they just shipped it off to Thai restaurants for them to make into those weird, flavorless strips.
Another salad has the prosaic English name “beef with lemon”; in Vietnamese it’s bo tai chanh. Thin slices of eye of round are “cured” in lemon juice and lemon vinegar, and finished with a coating of sesame oil, herbs and chili flakes. The beef is meant to be piled on rice crackers studded with black sesame seeds, which strengthens the obvious comparison to ceviche. This large pile of raw beef is too much for any two people to consume; luckily it’s even better the next day. It’s an incredible dish, and one you won’t find on a menu very often.
PK2 is bright and clean and has a crack staff of alert young people. That and the exceptional food result in brisk business at most times of the day. If you’re not Vietnamese, you may encounter a little resistance when you order an unusual dish (I won’t even go into the amount of pleading I had to do to get a serving of ox pizzle, which I’ll let you Google, if you’re curious), but be persistent, and after a few visits, you’ll earn a pass. And, once you taste the salads, one visit certainly won’t be enough.