Pho shame

Candle Light Vietnamese

1313 21st St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 448-8833

From my house, I can walk to get almost any kind of food—sushi, Moroccan, sandwiches, Thai (and more Thai)—you name it. But up until recently I couldn’t take a quick stroll to Vietnamese. The new Candle Light restaurant, on 21st Street, just south of Capitol, is a bit far for an average lunchtime walk for me, but a fast saunter for legions of Midtowners; and now that Tamarind is closed, it’s the only Midtown Vietnamese food I know of closer than Pho Bac Hoa Viet. The question is whether it’s worth gassing up the car to drive down to Stockton Boulevard, or to Broadway, for some meaty pho broth, or whether Candle Light will, well, light up the area with tasty fare closer to home.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure. The restaurant promises Vietnamese, Chinese and American food—always an unpropitious sign of culinary bet hedging. There’s not much to say about the ambience (because though the name might promise dimly lit romance), there isn’t any. There are big storefront-style windows, those oddly heavy metal chairs, glass-topped tables, and not much else besides Sriracha sauce. There’s also an almost aggressively bubbly server/host, who welcomed us with a flurry of queries about whether we would like something to drink, guidance on the menu and the like. I ordered a fresh lemonade (on the drinks menu), which caused some confusion (I think she was trying to steer me toward iced tea) but it was perfectly acceptable when it arrived—fresh and citrusy with a good whack of grainy, melting sugar in the bottom of the glass. There’s no liquor license (a sign noting the application for one hangs in the window), but they do have various shakes and sweet drinks.

The menu doesn’t take much perusal for anyone who is familiar with Vietnamese restaurants. You have your standards—bun, pho, rice plates—plus some dubious-sounding Chinese-American stir-fries, chow mein and other noodle dishes. We started off with some vegetarian spring rolls, which were fat and cabbagey, oozing so much oil they left thick yellow slicks on any plate they touched.

A kung pao tofu lunch special was basic: a greasy-ish stir-fry. The peanuts lent it an odd, almost acrid bitterness, but this wasn’t offset by any rounded spiciness or other more appealing flavors. The chow mein and fried rice that came with it (the lunch specials usually come with the choice, but the server offered the chance of both) were pretty unremarkable, and about what you’d expect from an unambitious Chinese place.

I had a bowl of pho, with rare steak that was actually fully cooked, gray and chewy—as well as badly cut, in slices that weren’t separate and hung together with sinewy bits and ragged hacks. The broth tasted beefy enough, but lacked the deeper, spice-imbued notes that make pho special and distinctive. The plate of herbs was fresh and added some nice aromatic notes, especially the sawleaf herb, but they couldn’t really rescue the bowl. I ended up loading it up with Sriracha, and it did clear my sinuses.

On another visit, things were a little better but still not quite up to snuff. Fresh spring rolls, filled with dryish, bland, cardboardy pork and scarcely less bland shrimp, got a lift from crunchy green leaves and a sweet peanut sauce, as well as their tender rice wrappers. A bun noodle bowl’s dressing, however, was dull in its seasoning and didn’t add much to the dish; I would have liked more fresh herbs and less shredded lettuce. The grilled pork with it was one-note and sugary, and it seemed to have suffered from the same hack job in the kitchen as the beef for the pho. Maybe the kitchen needs a good knife sharpener? (I do too, honestly. Where do all of you get your knives sharpened in town? But I digress.) The small fried pork spring rolls were peppery and juicy, and much less greasy than the previous veggie rolls had been.

We also tried bo luc lac, cubes of beef stir-fried in a peppery brown sauce—or one that is usually peppery. I liked the chewy-tender rare beef cubes themselves, but the sauce needed acid, pepper and maybe some garlic; it seemed mostly to have sugar. It wasn’t bad, really, but a more balanced flavor would have been welcome. Another dish, chicken with ginger, had a lot more punch, with its lighter brown sauce full of thick shreds of ginger, lengths of green onions and very tender chicken. Though it was a little too greasy, the sauce went well over the fragrant white rice.

In short, Candle Light—at least thus far—is dishing up fairly uninteresting versions of middle-of-the-road Vietnamese restaurant standards—plus that Chinese-American food. I’d say it would be a good place to hit for a big greasy midnight post-bar-hopping meal, but it closes early on weekdays and at midnight on weekends. Under the circumstances, then, I’d recommend going there when, say, you have a desperate cold and need pho, any pho, to cure what ails you. Otherwise? Drive the extra mile to Stockton Boulevard to find better—much better—Vietnamese.