Weep in delight
Quan Nem Ninh Hoa6450 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95823
One of the most joyful parts of this job is discovering places like Quan Nem Ninh Hoa. Of course, my editor sent me there, but that in no way diminishes the delight. It says right upfront on the menu that the restaurant, south of 47th Street at 6450 Stockton Boulevard, is “family operated and family environment.”
There’s something downright Rockwellian about the matriarch and her daughter or niece kibitzing behind the kitchen counter while doing prep work for the evening traffic. And while not a lot of the tan wood tables in the warm, earth-toned restaurant are filled at 1 p.m., several add credibility to the menu’s claim and contain families with little kiddos gabbing and gobbling up goodies, like the little dishes of banh beo—teensy rice pancakes mounded with ground shrimp, scallions and what look like fried shallots.
Also endearing is the restaurant’s truth in advertising. Its name says it offers food from Ninh Hoa, a district in the Khanh Hoa province in south central Vietnam. So there’s no pho here, bro. Not even to go. Briefly: North Vietnamese cooking, which begat pho and banh cuon, is influenced by China. In the south, the French imperialists tossed their culinary joie de vivre into the cook pot.
But in central Vietnam, dishes are spicier. The cooking of the royal court of the Nguyen Dynasty is a major influence. That’s one reason the food of central Vietnam has oodles of side dishes like banh beo—the more plates on the table, the greater the economic status of the host. Several central Vietnam dishes begin with the word “Hue” to show they originated in Hue, the Nguyen Dynasty’s capital from 1802 to 1945.
Popular in both the south and central part of Vietnam, hu tieu Nam Vang is a steal of a meal at $7.59. The menu adds the words “dac biet,” but all that means is “special.” The menu also says this broth is cooked for hours to reach perfection. I buy that—and gladly would again.
Freely translated, this is the “everything but the kitchen sink” soup. The menu says it includes pork, pork liver, poached shrimp, sautéed ground pork and opaque noodles. “Includes” is the operative word. Lurking in the broth’s depths is a small crab claw. There’s a bit of pickled raw pork, scallions, pork blood, white onion slivers, a thumb-sized hard-boiled egg, squid, shards of this, pinches of that. Throwing in the jalapeño pieces and sprouts from the side plate, a couple lime wedges and a dollop of fiery red-chili salsa creates a monstrously enthralling meal far greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s not even Quan Nem Ninh Hoa’s signature dish.
Its calling card is dac biet nem nuong: special ground pork spring rolls. Roll up your sleeves and roll your own. First, transform the rice paper from plastic Frisbees into moist edibility by submerging them in a bowl of hot water. This would be a fun meal on a date—$13.99 for two, $7.99 to go solo. There’s a marmalade-esque orange dipping sauce and panoply of possibilities. For two: four skewers of nem nuong—the ground pork—a couple of chaws of raw pickled pork (significantly better tasting than its description), a pile of pickled carrot squiggles, daikon slivers, miniature vermicelli bathmats and a passel of cheroot-sized egg rolls. Mix. Match. Then pile on some of the mountain of ultracrisp cilantro, mint, cucumber, basil and lettuce from the accompanying side plate. Splash some sweet chili sauce on top, twist the ends, bite down and weep in delight.
There’s a very flavorful “dac biet” house chicken that pops up among the “com” (rice) dishes and vermicelli offerings. Go the extra 99 cents for the strawberry lemonade. Not only fresh, it’s filled with chopped strawberries. So many freakishly fresh strawberries that, towards the end, the straw must be pitched in favor of a long-handled spoon.
Thanks for sending me here, boss. I owe you.