Scratching the tasty surface
A&A Tasty Restaurant and Bar
There’s an astronomical number of restaurants in Sacramento’s Little Saigon neighborhood. Many stand out by specializing in one type of traditional dish. Others are known for breaking the rules of tradition. A&A Tasty Restaurant and Bar, a large eatery located on the south end of Little Saigon, has such an extensive menu of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes that it’s hard to pinpoint its crown jewel. One can only speculate.
But first off, it’s worth noting that logistically, it’s only possible to review a tiny percentage of the overall menu. There are literally hundreds of regular menu options, lunch specials, daily chef specials, banquet menus and seasonal seafood dishes, and there’s even a full bar. It could take a hundred visits to try everything on the menu at A&A.
For one meal, I bring a pair of dining partners in an attempt to sample a greater number of dishes. We share a salty fish and chicken-fried rice entree, stir-fried vegetables, and a rice plate featuring a grilled pork chop, shrimp skewers, pickled vegetables and a pork eggroll.
The fried rice offers copious pieces of diced, salty fish, which appealed to our adventurous taste buds. While it may seem a bit weird to the uninitiated, this smelly cured meat found in numerous Chinese dishes is safe to eat in moderation without the risk of too much unintended harmful bacteria, and the reward is a unique, jolting pungent flavor that spruces up an otherwise boring chicken-fried rice. The grilled-veggie plate, on the other hand—while offering a variety of vegetables, including mushrooms, onions and water chestnuts—lacks flavor.
The Vietnamese pork-chop rice plate, served with a small bowl of fish sauce, surprisingly stacks up to similar dishes from other strictly Vietnamese restaurants in the area. The pork is thinly sliced and tender, easily cut with a simple butter knife. The pork egg rolls that accompany this dish have a nice, albeit bland crunchiness that seems to come from either chopped taro or the chestnuts.
On another visit, I order Chinese lo mein (a stir-fried noodle dish), and my dining partner orders a dish that combines huáng máo ji (Mandarin for “yellow-hair chicken,” which is less fattening and more yellow than a “normal” chicken) and hu tieu (a Vietnamese noodle soup like pho, but with a stronger resemblance to Cambodian ka tieu). The huáng máo ji is accompanied by jiang rong (ginger and scallion sauce), the dish’s traditional condiment. My dining partner (a regular here) notes that the chicken is unfortunately boneless, as well as not as good as it “used to be.” I find it to be both tasty and convenient, however—and I’m the one with a Chinese mother and grandmother who grew up eating the dish.
The mash-up of hu tieu and huáng máo ji is one I’ve never tried, but I find it to be my favorite dish at the restaurant. I’ve eaten huáng máo ji so many times that the dish alone is simply boring now, yet in this context, it comes to life again and shines when set atop a steaming bowl of noodle soup.
Lastly, there’s the satisfying and heartwarming house special lo mein, which I sometimes view as the Chinese version of spaghetti: cheap and quick comfort food. Still, even with its salty, starchy and stomach-filling blend of noodles, chicken, beef and shrimp, it requires Sriracha sauce and pickled jalapeños to add depth and extra flavor.
In the end, there’s an inkling that I may have uncovered the hidden gem on the menu. But with only so much time, I can’t order the same dish again to confirm my hunch or explore the menu for clues about other possible standouts. Instead, I’m left pondering the dilemma of ordering something new, or reordering the yellow-hair chicken noodle soup. There are worse problems to have.