First impressions: Coriander Vietnamese Restaurant

05/14/2014 4:00 PM

05/14/2014 10:47 AM

Vietnamese food ranks as a local favorite for those who love Asian eats, but if you’re in the central city and craving a quick bowl of pho at lunch hour, south Sacramento is usually too much of a trek.

Sure, there’s Pho Bac Hoa Viet on Broadway, and Star Ginger carries a few Vietnamese dishes at the corner of Folsom and Alhambra boulevards. But a new option opened in late April just down the street from Star Ginger at the corner of Alhambra Boulevard and S Street.

Coriander Vietnamese Restaurant now occupies the former space of Midtown Deli and offers a menu of flavor-forward dishes reflecting the cuisine of central Vietnam. Unlike the emphasis on seafood and pronounced Chinese influences found in the north, or the sweeter foods that are a signature of the south, central Vietnamese cooking stands apart for its bold spiciness and emphasis on small-plate dishes.

You can smell the licorice-like star anise upon entering, given that it’s a key ingredient of Coriander’s pho beef broth. The restaurant is named after the fragrant herb that’s also known as cilantro.

Our Counter Culture reviewer Allen Pierleoni recently tried to sample the goods at Coriander for dinner, but the wait was up to 40 minutes for a table. A stop during the Monday lunch rush found brisk business at the eatery, but landing a table was no problem. A chunk of the clientele appeared to come from the nearby Mercy Medical Group facilities, along with office workers who might otherwise stop across the street to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op for a quick lunch.

But will Coriander be able to hold its own against Stockton Boulevard’s finest? Here’s what you can expect at Coriander thus far.

Menu: Unlike the dozens of items to be ordered at, say, Pho Bac Hoa Viet, Coriander’s all-day menu can be contained on a single page. The appetizers list includes a handful of small-plate dishes, including spicy garlic wings, grilled pork spring rolls and crispy Saigon crepes with bits of grilled shrimp and chicken. We tried to order the pork belly sliders, which sounds more like a Vietnamese food truck item than an authentic dish from the homeland, but, alas, they were out.

The soup-centric entree offerings include two types of pho – beef with brisket and rib-eye steak, or free-range chicken – along with a tofu noodle soup geared for vegetarians. Seafood options include a banh canh soup with thick noodles and a medley of shrimp, crab and fish cake.

The menu also includes bun bo hue, a signature soup of central Vietnam with rice vermicelli and lemongrass broth. For those adventuresome eaters who might wonder if Coriander caters to Western tastes, the bun bo hue indeed comes with the traditional cubes of congealed pig’s blood. No, that’s not tofu.

Dessert includes two choices: a Vietnamese smoothie with jackfruit or advocado, or coconut-pineapple ice cream with pandan waffles.

Price point: A meal for two can easily come in under $30 total. The most expensive dish on the menu, the seafood banh canh, costs $11. Other entrees cost either $8 or $9, and appetizers are priced at $6 or $7 – though an appetizer sampler costs $11.

The overall prices are affordable, but somewhat higher compared to other Vietnamese restaurants. The pho at Coriander costs $9, while the going rate is closer to $7.50 for an extra-large bowl at Vietnamese spots on Stockton Boulevard.

Ambiance: Coriander looks more like an airy bistro than a mom-and-pop banh mi spot. The restaurant includes indoor table seating, an outside patio and two small bars for those looking to slurp some soup on the go. The wood chairs and white furnishings look freshly purchased, and a large image of the state Capitol takes up one wall. Four plasma-screen TVs are positioned over one of the bar areas, and another TV overlooks a section of the small dining room. The overall feel is comfortable and clean.

Drinks: Wash down those eats with chrysanthemum jasmine iced tea, or get a pick-me-up via Vietnamese iced coffee. Wine and beer are also for sale, including Lagunitas IPA and Kirin.

Service: Cheery and brisk. Coriander seems to aim for an inclusive spirit, instead of the kind of place with stone-faced servers who give wary looks to foodie tourists and other outsiders.

First impressions: The impression of garlic and spices still lingers on our palates a few hours after lunch. Many of the foods, especially the chicken wings and Coriander fried rice, are flavored strongly per central Vietnamese custom. So far, Coriander looks to be a good alternative to Star Ginger in terms of ambiance and accessibility. But will Coriander’s menu grow?

Try it if: You’re hankering for tasty Vietnamese food but don’t need 100 menu choices.

Forget it if: You’re thinking of going in for a goodnight kiss and don’t have breath mints on stand by.

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