For at least a year, owner Alex Kinjo has been encouraging me to try the pho at Nam, which is his mother’s recipe.
I have always nodded politely and said, “Yeah, yeah.”
When I want pho, I go to a good, cheap pho parlor, such as I did yesterday at Pho Dai Loi #2. When I dine at Nam, I want something more restaurant-y, such as these rice flour tamales served in the shade of an anthurium. With or without the rude flower, they are wonderful.
But when I was making plans to meet friends for lunch in Midtown recently, I remembered Kinjo’s mom’s pho.
The menu at Nam has changed little over the years. This isn’t the restaurant where you go looking for daily specials and seasonal ingredients, but rather where you revisit old favorites.
We began with an order of cha gio rolls, served with well-trimmed lettuce leaves, marinated veggies and herbs for rolling. All the fresh greenery makes the fried crunch that much more satisfying.
This green mango (as in the skin was still green) salad with grilled shrimp came in a wash of nuoc cham — that lightly sweetened blend of funky fish sauce, lime and chile. I know this has become kind of a stupid, food-writer-y comment to make, but the sauce really does give a dimension of umami — that expansive, mouth-watering primary taste we so appreciate in things like stewed and grilled meat. I really loved the weird juxtaposition of umami with crisp, sour mango. For Westerners, it’s the kind of exciting contrast we don’t experience often enough. (Think cole slaw on a barbecue sandwich, for one example.)
And here comes the pho. It really is different, with a rich and gorgeously developed beef broth. I loved the black pepper floating on top, and the slivered red onion gave the broth a bright kick. The pho is not served steaming hot, which allowed the beef to stay rare and not toughen in the soup. Then again, I look forward to the way typical pho fogs my glasses. Guess I’m of two minds on this question. Still, I give this pho a hearty recommendation.
I can never leave Nam without ordering the lemongrass tofu — crisply fried cubes that contain loads of minced lemongrass in their breading. This order was not quite as full flavored as it has been in the past. It usually has more of that citrusy tingle.
(Quick digression: This visit to Nam did motivate me to try and make lemongrass tofu at home. The results weren’t bad at all. I found this frozen minced lemongrass at the Buford Highway Farmers Market, and it’s exactly what you need.)
Finally, we ordered this clay pot caramel shrimp — not served in a clay pot, but no worries. The sauce had a fantastic balance of sweet, bitter and salty elements, and the shrimp had a fresh flavor and juicy snap.
All in all, a terrific lunch — one worth braving Midtown Promenade’s hellacious parking lot for.