Over the years, we’ve reveled in exploring Vietnamese cuisine in the row of restaurants along Stockton Boulevard, aka Little Saigon. In particular through rivers of pho (“fuh”), we’ve learned that not all of them are worthy of their heritage. After all, the multiflavored and mutlitextured noodle soup is the national dish of Vietnam, and can be sublime. Part of its appeal is the legacy left from a century of French occupation of that country, including the inclusion of fresh herbs in cooking and the technique of boiling beef bones to make stock.
Our search for a hearty lunch on a chilly day led us to the family-owned and -operated Pho #1 in Fair Oaks, where we were pleased to see a menu ($5 to $10.75) with six versions of pho, plus four other soups, 40-some other dishes and a whole page devoted to vegetarian items.
The small dining room is tidy, hung with paper lanterns and decorated with simple art. Of particular interest is the adjoining dining room – much larger, more formally appointed and obviously newly constructed, but closed. Turns out it likely will debut in December, said principal owner Lien Nguyen, but with conditions: When the new room opens, the present dining room will be devoted to the popular takeout part of the business. The new room will host lunch and dinner, with an expanded menu at dinner. The emphasis will be on “more fancy but still affordable specialty items like clay pots, wraps and stir-fries,” Lien said.
Meanwhile, we started with house-made gyoza-like dumplings with a tasty dipping sauce of sesame oil, garlic, vinegar and soy sauce. Next were two hefty spring rolls stuffed with chewy-tender grilled beef, their rice paper wrapping slightly charred and smoky from the grill.
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Chicken and wonton soups were bowls of from-scratch chicken broth filled with al dente egg noodles (or choose rice noodles or mungbean noodles), shredded chicken breast, carrot, broccoli and celery. The many wontons were homemade.
Crispy grilled pork with vermicelli is a standard entry on Vietnamese menus, and Pho #1’s take was well-handled. We added grilled shrimp and an OK fried egg roll to the bowl, and poured fish sauce mixed with vinegar and “secret ingredients” over all. But where were the crushed peanuts?
We didn’t expect to see orange-flavored chicken under the “Stir-fried” list, so took a chance. Turned out it had nothing to do with the Chinese version of heavily battered fried chicken with thick orange sauce. Instead, the delightfully light meal featured veggies and strips of chicken flavored with slivers of orange zest. Delicious.
Finally, our steaming bowl of pho was heavy with noodles and chunky with slices of tender-chewy brisket and dense “meat balls” that, frankly, tasted like pieces of hot dog (but weren’t). Otherwise, it was excellent, characterized by the dark, aromatic beef broth that had simmered for 12 hours and was redolent with five-spice powder (usually a blend of cinnamon, anise, fennel, cloves and pepper). We added fresh basil, bean sprouts, jalapeño coins and a squeeze of lime.
Pho #1 is one of those surprise places we all look for – very good food in decent portions at bargain prices.
Real New York pizza
Sacramento has turned into a pizza destination, but let’s put things into perspective: Brooklyn-born John Ruffaine pioneered thin-crust New York-style pizza in Sacramento 15 years ago when he opened Giovanni’s Old World New York Pizzeria in South Land Park.
To mark its anniversary, we stopped by the sister store on Folsom Boulevard and dived into a pie slicked with half tomato sauce and half pesto, topped with mushrooms and pepperoni. It was the same experience we’ve always had at both stores – that is, four-star pizza assembled from scratch, each bite better than the last.
“It’s been a long road to educate people about real Italian pizza, with everything homemade and fresh,” Ruffaine said on the phone later. “Do it right and with passion or don’t do it at all, which is what I’m all about.”
Giovanni’s two Sacramento locations are 6200 Folsom Blvd., 916-455-8831, and 5924 South Land Park Drive, 916-393-7001; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Visit at www.giovannisnypizzeria.com.
Back to Skool
One of our favorite stops is Skool restaurant, which opened for dinner and brunch in February and describes its fare as “seafood with Japanese flair.” The good news is it’s now serving lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, to be expanded in 2017, said co-owner Andy Mirabell.
Also, half-off oysters have moved onto the happy hour menu; all night Tuesdays, 5-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 3-6 p.m. Fridays, and 11a.m.-6 p.m. weekends. The fish house is at 2319 K St., Sacramento, 916-737-5767, www.skoolonkstreet.com.
Where: In Quail Point center, 5323 Sunrise Blvd., Fair Oaks
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
How much: $
Information: 916-966-2020; a website is under construction