Stockton Boulevard’s Little Saigon gets lots of love from pho obsessives, and I’m as susceptible as anyone to the charms of complex broth, slippery noodles and tender beef. But if you have stuck only to pho and maybe the occasional banh mi sandwich or bowl of bun (rice noodle salad) in your Vietnamese food orders, it’s time to branch out.
Com Tam Dat Thanh – which lies just northwest of the boundaries of Little Saigon proper, with an address on Fruitridge but its vast parking lot facing Stockton – is the perfect place to expand your horizons. As its name suggests, the restaurant specializes in com tam, or “broken rice” dishes, but also has a strong lineup of noodle offerings.
Made from grains of jasmine rice broken during the threshing process, com tam is a traditional Vietnamese rice style. Grains in this form feature a slight floral aroma and a fluffy, ultralight texture all their own.
At Dat Thanh, the broken rice comes in a perfect alabaster mound, accompanied by your choice of meats and/or various styles of shrimp. The combos are numbered on the menu, and the com tam dishes go all the way to No. 32, so you won’t run out of options any time soon.
If the number of combinations seems overwhelming, don’t panic: The owners have outfitted the bright, wide-open dining room with big photos of various dishes, and the servers come equipped with cute little brag books (like the kind grandmas have of their grandkids) featuring more photos of almost every dish.
All broken rice orders come with a heap of vegetables – shreds of tangy pickled carrot and daikon, crunchy little pickled green onion bulbs, a frilly lettuce leaf, thick cucumber slices, tiny incendiary chiles – and a small bowl of salty golden broth garnished with green onions. And every table hosts condiments, including fish sauce and three kinds of hot sauce, for those who like to augment.
Grilled pork, a mainstay of banh mi and bun, might be the most familiar of the meats that go with the com tam, and it’s excellent – a bit sweet and savory, redolent of black pepper and grilled to smoky, tender perfection. Similar flavors enliven grilled beef ribs (these are slim cross-cut short ribs) and sliced BBQ beef.
The grilled chicken, with its hints of lemongrass, is a standout as well, and grilled shrimp were clean-tasting, juicy and perfectly cooked, without any hint of the unappealing iodine flavor that sometimes can accompany these crustaceans.
Don’t limit yourself to the easy appeal of the grilled meats, though. Shrimp on sugarcane – a paste that’s a little sweet, with a briny savor – was a great counterpoint to small nibbles of those wildly hot chile peppers. The shrimp cake, too, with its crisp wrapper and sweet shrimp filling, was a hit. Shredded pork skins had a deeply meaty flavor, and another option, egg cake – a thick triangular wedge like a firm crustless quiche, rich with pork and threaded through with clear noodles – offered textural contrast.
All of these can be mixed and matched to find your favorite combo; mine ended up being the grilled chicken and shrimp on sugarcane.
Most of these meats also come on the bun (rice vermicelli) and the banh hoi (tiny rice vermicelli) dishes as well. These two sections of the menu might sound the same, but in practice, they’re quite different.
Banh hoi comes on a plate with several small lacy hanks of thread-thin rice noodles laid flat and topped with peanuts and any two of a slightly narrowed list of options – BBQ pork or beef, fried shrimp cake, grilled shrimp or egg roll. Orders also come with a huge, fresh plate of herbs and vegetables. The addition of cilantro and mint gives these dishes extra freshness, and this style of noodle is less often seen on area menus. It’s well worth a try.
The more familiar bun dishes are enormous bowls of noodle salad, with a tangle of rice noodles (here they are similar in thickness to a Western-style spaghettini), lots of vegetables, a shower of toasted peanuts and fried shallots, and a hefty helping of toppings that are variations on the themes of the dishes already described. Bun can come with the customer’s choice of meats, egg rolls or shrimp cakes. They’re well prepared, fresh and balanced, and immediately vaulted to the top of my mental bun rankings.
Dat Thanh’s egg rolls, by the way, are some of the best I have had in Sacramento, fried to perfection with super-crunchy, light, blistered wrappers and a peppery pork filling. They’re also available as a standalone appetizer, as are fresh spring rolls, translucent rice-paper rolls filled with shredded pork skin, shrimp and pork, or grilled pork sausage.
We tried the spring roll filled with sausage. It was savory and juicy, with tons of fresh vegetables and the contrasting surprise crunch of fried pencil-thin cylinders of egg-roll wrapper tucked inside the larger spring roll.
Naturally, there’s also pho available. Though it’s not the main focus of the menu, it’s a well-built bowl of soup, spice-scented and cleanly flavored, and pho-philes will not feel deprived here in any way.
If you like an alcoholic beverage with your meal, your options are limited to three kinds of beer. But the nonalcoholic choices are great: fresh limeade juiced to order, with just enough gritty sugar at the bottom; potent and sweet iced coffee with condensed milk; perfumy Thai-style iced tea with boba; and more.
On each of my visits, the same older woman was in the kitchen, turning out carefully prepared plates with great alacrity, and occasionally coming out to consult. It’s a casual place, and service isn’t overly refined, but it gets the food to the table fast.
The place was quiet at dinner, except for takeout orders, but was hopping at lunch – and no wonder, with such good food at visit-often prices. As our plates were delivered on one recent unseasonably spring-like day, my husband looked up from his enormous bowl of rice noodles topped with pork and golden egg rolls and said: “I don’t know why anyone who works near Stockton Boulevard would ever bring a lunch.”
I had to agree, as I dug into the still-sizzling grilled beef ribs on my broken rice plate and eyed the swirling condensed milk in my iced coffee. I’m delighted to add Dat Thanh to my lineup for lunch or dinner. I suggest you strongly consider doing the same.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
Com Tam Dat Thanh
5035 Fruitridge Road, Sacramento; 916-758-5775
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Monday
Beverage options: Limited beer selection, plus fresh limeade and sodas and iced coffee with condensed milk.
Vegetarian friendly: Not very; there’s one vegetarian soup amid a sea of meat-oriented options.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Modest.
Ambiance: Spacious and bright, with the otherwise bland storefront enlivened by touches like orchids, Buddha figures and a shrine built into the long counter. Wall-mounted photos of the menu offerings provide guidance to those confused about what to order.
A newer, slightly out-of-the-way addition to Stockton Boulevard’s restaurant row, Com Tam Dat Thanh is well worth seeking out, offering super-fresh and savory broken rice and noodle plates with grilled pork, beef, shrimp and more. There’s pho, too, of course.
FOOD: ☆☆☆ 1/2
The specialty here is com tam, or broken rice plates, with meat and seafood combos served alongside a scoop of delicate small-grained jasmine rice, and they are delicious. In addition to the broken rice, don’t miss the tiny rice vermicelli, the ultra-fresh bun (rice noodle salads) and the fresh spring rolls.
SERVICE: ☆☆ 1/2
Dishes and drinks are delivered as they are ready, which can lead to uneven service, but given the ultra-casual atmosphere that’s not much of a sin.
VALUE: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Prices are extremely reasonable, especially given food’s freshness and the care of its preparation, topping out at $13.95 for special combinations but with most dishes $10 or less.