Pho sizzle

Tamarind Vietnamese Eatery

2520 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

Midtown finally has a place serving pho and Vietnamese noodle bowls, my favorite type of lunch takeout, and—bitter irony—you can’t call ahead to order out. At least you couldn’t a week ago when I tried. Even though Tamarind Vietnamese Eatery has been open for a little over a month, the phone number (printed on the menus) is still non-operational.

When I went there for a sit-down lunch, a woman walked in to order and complained, pointing out that they would get a lot more business if they had a phone. The MIA phone service is actually somewhat representative of the service as a whole, which tends to be a little on the inefficient and forgetful side. Perhaps that’s a function of new-restaurant kinks, but the glitches seem like things that should be sorted out by now: forgetting to bring the plate of herbs and accouterments that goes with pho, for instance, or not bringing lids for soup takeout containers even when asked.

That’s not to say service isn’t friendly. It is, and the setting is also pleasant, with sleek stainless-steel wainscoting, mustard walls and chocolate accents including dark-wood tables and chairs. The menu covers the basics of Vietnamese lunch fare: some appetizers, 11 types of pho (with rice noodles), a few egg-noodle soups, vermicelli rice-noodle bowls and a section of “rice plates.” The latter lurk on the reverse of the menu and easily are overlooked, but they were actually my favorite thing at Tamarind.

On my first visit, we started off with an appetizer I haven’t seen other places: fried broccoli with soy sauce. I expected it to be battered, but when it appeared (it was delayed, as the fryer was still heating up), it had been tossed in the oil naked so that the florets crisped and browned. I liked the theory a lot, but in practice the florets also managed to retain quite a bit of that oil, making the plate greasier than it needed to be. It was also a little too salty in spots, thanks to uneven soy-sauce application.

The various types of pho are clearly the restaurant’s staple—and a timely one, as the winter’s chill has set in. The big, steaming bowls can be ordered with everything from brisket and tendon (or other typical meats such as savory beef balls, rare—that is, raw—steak, or tripe) to chicken and shrimp. The latter came with the same modestly beefy broth as the pho, which seemed an odd match but wasn’t bad. Alas, the broth was a touch ho-hum: not as meaty or aromatic in flavor as the best broth I’ve had and overall a touch flat.

Dosed with condiments, however, and left to sit with things like super-meaty beef balls or brisket in it, the pho takes on a little more character. Although the servers forgot the herbs and chilies on one visit, this was rectified on another, with a sprig of basil, copious bean sprouts and some rather mild jalapeño slices. (As an aside, there seems to be a plague of ultra-mild jalapeños visited upon the land. Whatever happened to hot chilies?) Any yearning for heat the chilies don’t supply can be fixed with the commendably broad array of red-chili sauces available on the table.

The vermicelli bowl I tried was serviceable but not outstanding, with a less-than-generous amount of fresh herbs to offset the noodles. The grilled pork on it was overly dry, almost jerky-like, and the egg rolls were dull: They tasted a lot like the ones you’d find on a steam tray at a Chinese buffet and were short on meat and flavor, lacking the peppery, lively quality I associate with fried Vietnamese rolls. (Egg rolls ordered as an appetizer also come with an uninspired, sweet, gooey dipping sauce.)

Rice plates, after these slightly uneven offerings, seemed like they might be on the dull side, but instead they were home runs. I tried two: One with grilled chicken and shrimp and the other with a pork chop. The latter was sweet, charred and dosed with black pepper, and it also came with an excellent spicy fish-sauce dressing. The mound of fragrant rice was perfectly cooked.

Similarly, the plate with chicken and shrimp offered tons of what tasted like lemon grass and garlic flavor in the chicken’s marinade and a small skewer of plump, juicy, sizzling shrimp. I’d actually ordered something else, but the server forgot my order, by which time I was re-thinking what I’d originally chosen. She recommended the chicken and shrimp plate and it was a good call. I’ll go back on a cold day when I’m looking for rib-sticking fare to try the short ribs and the spicy-sausage plates.

Tamarind is clearly still finding its feet to some degree—turning on that phone and getting the servers a little more “with it” would be good ideas—but it’s rice plates have all the flavor one could wish for. The pho isn’t perfect, but it’s still nice to be able to get a steaming bowlful in Midtown.