Allen Pierleoni

Review: Lemon Grass pho is always in fashion

Brandy fried chicken is a classic at Simon’s Bar & Cafe
Brandy fried chicken is a classic at Simon’s Bar & Cafe

Sitting at a table inside Lemon Grass, admiring bowls of fragrant pho noodle soup, lunch pal Bruce Anapolsky gave a preview of Sacramento’s upcoming fall fashion scene. He’s the CEO of the Julius Clothing specialty store in the Pavilions center, and he recently returned from Fashion Week in New York City. Appropriately, he wore an Ermenegildo Zegna silk sport coat in navy and cobalt tones.

“We’ll be seeing a return to classic donegal tweeds and herringbone jackets in fall colors (for men and women), but done in much lighter and newer fabrics that are very fresh-looking,” he said.

We were at Lemon Grass doing a different kind of preview, one for an upcoming roundup of soups for the cold months. As for its refined version of pho (pronounced “fuh”), the national dish of Vietnam, owner-chef Mai Pham said on the phone later, “It’s my favorite topic. I ate my first bowl when I was barely old enough to hold chopsticks. Our delicate chicken broth is flavored with roasted charred onions, charred ginger and a lot of spices, like star anise, cloves, cinnamon and coriander seeds.”

The MSG-free broth was full of rice noodles. We topped it with hand-cut slices of Niman Ranch sirloin, jalapeño coins, anise basil and bean sprouts, with a squeeze of lime ($10.75).

Mai Pham had called from the just-opened Delta Sky Club at SFO, where she was putting the final touches on its new menu, which she designed. “It’s the first time an airline lounge in the U.S. has served Asian food,” she said. Pho is one of the stars, of course.

P.S. When it comes to eating pho, Mai Pham said slurping is perfectly fine.

Lemon Grass, 601 Munroe St., Sacramento; 916-486-4891,

A classic is still with us

In the day, lobbyists, political consultants and lawmakers conspired over cocktails and platters of chow mein at Simon’s Bar & Cafe, to the extent that the San Jose Mercury News once dubbed it “The other Capitol.”

Recently, the Capitol Area Development Agency fired a shot across the historic restaurant’s bow with a reminder that the state owns the land Simon’s sits on, and eventual “redevelopment” is inevitable. Which one day sadly will mark the end of another Sacramento classic.

With sentimentality in mind, we hurried over to the joint for its signature dish, brandy fried chicken ($9; thighs only, please), and a heaped plate of chef’s special fried rice ($9). The dark crust on the chicken was crunchy and heavily seasoned, the meat inside moist and steaming. It’s long been one of the best dishes in town.

Filling the accompanying chef’s special rice were tender shrimp, pork, roast chicken, wok-cooked egg and scallion, the perfect aromatic side dish for the fried chicken. “This is the best fried rice I’ve ever eaten,” a lunch pal said. Hey, what did you expect?

Simon’s Bar & Cafe, 1415 16th St., Sacramento; 916-442-9437.

Lobster is on a roll

Returning from last weekend’s 30th annual Autumn Food & Wine Festival at Northstar resort, we pulled off into Truckee and tracked down Morgan’s Lobster Shack & Fish Market. It’s a bit undiscovered because the relentless waves of tourists visiting the town seldom leave Commercial Row along Donner Pass Road and cross the railroad tracks to explore West River Street.

Inside, we eyed the haddock fish ’n’ chips and an oyster po’ boy and a sandwich made with fresh Ipswich clams, but took real-estate expert/lunch pal Nikki Lausmann’s advice and went for the lobster rolls. Succulent claw and knuckle meat were packed into split-top buns and served with sides of drawn butter ($18, two for $33). This real-deal version of the classic New England staple was simple in concept yet stunning in flavor.

Husband-wife owners Shawn Whitney and Heather Morgan Whitney both are from Maine lobstering families and opened the shack two years ago. They’re planning to open a bigger store in Reno in January, with thoughts of still more stores in California. Bring ’em on.

Morgan’s Lobster Shack, 10087 West River St., 530-582-5000,

Navigating Denio’s food court

One recent Sunday found us at the 80-acre labyrinth in Roseville known as Denio’s, a farmers market and swap meet that’s pushing 70 years old. We wanted to check out the nine-kiosk food court.

We wandered by hundreds of covered spaces manned by entrepreneurs selling just about everything. Throngs of browsers milled about, turning the expanse into a tent city. Surprisingly, management will not give attendance figures, but if it were a movie set, we would think in terms of “a cast of thousands.”

We finally came across the Simply Grilled hut and jumped on a way-better-than-average corn dog, the wiener encased in light, crunchy batter made from a “secret recipe.” “A corn dogs is just a vehicle for ballpark mustard,” a lunch pal observed. Our second dish, a “fully loaded hot link,” was heaped with enough condiments to require a stack of napkins.

A 10-minute hike took us to Rodrigo’s Street Tacos, where we were impressed by two beef-filled soft tacos splashed with homemade salsa and sprinkled with a garden of cilantro. They were well-seasoned and as good or better than many sold at more mainstream Mexican restaurants.

Denio’s is at 1551 Vineyard Road in Roseville; 916-782-2704,

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe