Uncharted territory

Southeast Asian BBQ

557 Eleanor Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95815

(916) 929-3257

It’s always a little unsettling to go to a new part of town and realize there are vast swaths of your own city of which you know nothing. I had such an experience the other day in heading to Southeast Asian BBQ. It lies in a sort of terra incognita wedged in west of Business 80 and south of Interstate 80 at the Norwood exit. I have no idea what the neighborhood is called, but it’s full of little houses, Hmong grocery stores and shabby strip malls—one of which houses the thoroughly unprepossessing Southeast Asian BBQ.

At least, it seems unprepossessing until you get out of your car and smell the grill. Paint peels from the almost illegible sign. Inside, the linoleum is old and curls at the edges in spots, but once you get a whiff of that barbecue, you won’t let that stop you. Oddly, despite the “BBQ” in the restaurant’s name, the only grilled item on the menu is the chicken wing on a stick. It’s $1.25 for each splayed and somehow prehistoric-looking wing. The skin is grilled to a taut and burnished golden brown, the color of buckwheat honey. The interior is juicy perfection, flavorful and moist with a savory marinade. One or two with a side of sticky sweet rice could qualify as the cheapest lunch in town, but there’s no reason to snub the other menu items.

The menu isn’t long, but it’s interesting. There are hints of various cuisines of Southeast Asia, from familiar Thai and Vietnamese to less well-known Laotian and Cambodian. Your choices—headed by the large command “Cash only”—are written up on a board above the cash register, where you order. You’d do well to ask for one of the printed paper sheets that explains matters, particularly the soups. Otherwise, the distinctions among the three main contenders—“noodle soup,” “rice noodle soup” and “rice stick noodle”—may be difficult to grasp. There’s also a beef-stew soup, which may be a bit too authentic for many Western diners, myself included. It contains tripe, and I can’t quite go there.

It turns out that noodle soup is pho, with beef and meatballs. It also comes with squid and shrimp in the large size. (Most of the soups come in small, medium and large.) Rice noodle soup, khao piek, is chicken. Rice stick noodle, khao phoon, is “red curry chicken flavor” with cabbage. I got the small size of the latter, which was plenty big. It was just spicy enough, with fine shreds of chicken and a bright slick of red curry floating over a delicately lemongrass-scented broth. The slippery, round, thick noodles were a nice contrast to the crunchy bits of cabbage and bean sprouts.

It was one of the best noodle soups I’ve ever had, and I’d go back just for that. But I also would want to try the other soups, which the other customers were enjoying around us. At the table next to us, an Asian woman was giving her three lunch companions—who looked to be white, Hispanic and African-American—a mini-tutorial in Asian-style noodle soups, which they were quickly and happily slurping with the best of them. Although most of the restaurant’s clientele was Asian (and the cooking style at the restaurant caters to Asian rather than Western tastes), it’s always nice to see Sacramento’s diversity in action.

Aside from the soups, the menu also offers laab, a warm salad of chopped beef or chicken with cilantro, green onions and crushed pepper, plus lettuce on the side. The beef version had a pleasant toasty flavor and went well with a side of rice, but the small bits of meat had a lot of gristle. I kind of liked the textural contrast, but my husband, who had ordered the dish, found it off-putting. The seasoning was delicious, however, and the plentiful juice mixed well with the sticky rice.

We also tried a side of som tum, green-papaya salad. The crunchy, shredded green papaya is served with tomatoes, rice noodles and as many fresh chili peppers as you like. Unless you prefer things incendiary, I wouldn’t go above three. We asked for two, and our salad was plenty hot. A tiny bit more lime juice in the seasoning would have balanced out the strong flavor of fish sauce (which my husband, again, found overwhelming). Fish sauce can be an acquired taste, but for papaya salad, it’s one worth acquiring.

Drinks run mainly to sodas, but there’s also sweet, brick-orange Thai iced tea as well as Thai coffee. The menu also lists (but does not describe) a single “dessert” at $1.25, but we never delved into the mystery of what it was. Perhaps on a later visit we can explore it, along with the other soups. I’m also hoping to check out what else the restaurant’s neighborhood might offer in terms of new food options. Any area that can produce those succulent grilled chicken wings and that rice stick noodle soup is one I want to get to know.