On the first day I ate at the 3-month-old Co Mai’s Kitchen, workers were replacing the temporary signage — and that of a short-lived previous tenant — with a permanent sign. It’s a good thing they did, because if my experience is any indication, Co Mai’s should settle in for a long run.
Offering fresh, likeable Vietnamese fare doesn’t make Co Mai’s unique in this city. It does, however, add a new flavor profile to the underserved far west end of Broadway, which is starting to boom as a restaurant district. That’s good news for denizens of Land Park, who can pick up a wider range of takeout close to home, but it’s also worth stopping in for those who aren’t necessarily nearby.
Co Mai’s is family-run and unpretentious, with understated peach-colored walls, comfortable booths and well-spaced tables. It’s the first restaurant for owner Tuan Tu.
There’s no beer or wine yet, though Tu promises local draft beers when the license comes through. Meanwhile, an intense, sweet iced coffee with condensed milk is a treat at lunch, and tea is also available.
It’s a good place for a conversation, with Vietnamese music playing in the background and unintrusive servers. The slight downside is that service can be a tad slow, especially when business picks up.
At one of my meals, an appetizer platter came out of the kitchen when we were well into our entrees. It’s not a formal place, though, so such lapses are forgivable.
In any case, the house platter — which offers tastes of most of the solid lineup of starters — was worth the wait. The cha gio (fried egg rolls) are slender and crunchy, with a peppery pork filling. Spring rolls, with their ultra-tender rice paper wrapper and plump shrimp, were replete with fresh herbs. Nem nuong (grilled pork sausage in rice paper) were savory and aromatic with lemongrass.
All those are familiar options; the banh beo in tiny bowls (also called water fern cakes) may be less so for many diners. These are soft steamed little rice-flour cakes, though their texture is more pudding-like than cakey. Topped with fried shallot and herbs, they are subtle, a break for the palate and all about their velvety texture.
At another meal, I tried an appetizer not on the house platter, the banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe), a lacy, crisp-edged yellow rice-based crepe filled with chewy pork, sweet shrimp and bean sprouts. I loved the subtle flavor and the dose of fresh lettuce and herbs alongside, but was less keen on the oily residue the crepe left on the plate.
Soups are a strength at Co Mai’s. The basic pho has a good balance, with a rounded, beefy, aromatic broth. Chicken pho is lighter. I enjoyed the bun bo hue, which has slippery round noodles and several kinds of meat in a brick-red, spicy broth made with lemongrass. I wanted the soup hotter, but there are plenty of chili pastes on the table for that.
The banh canh, called “Vietnamese udon” on the menu, is thick, almost porridgelike in its chicken broth, with stubby handmade rice noodles adding chew and shredded chicken and enormous, fresh-tasting pink shrimp for protein. The drizzle of chili oil and crunch of fried shallots both added a savory edge to the lavish bowl.
Mi quang is listed on the menu as the “house special dish,” hailing from central Vietnam: a mix of flat, wide ribbonlike yellow rice noodles in just a little aromatic broth, with pork, shrimp, lots of herbs, the pop of peanuts and crunchy toasted rice crackers on top. I was unfamiliar with the dish before ordering and the server warned me that it wasn’t a traditional soup. That was fine by me; the mix of flavors and textures made for a very tasty meal.
Banh mi are well-made here, with light and crisp-crusted baguette and a good balance of flavors in the fillings. At $5.95, they aren’t as cheap as you could get them on Stockton Boulevard, but they’re a good lunch option on a budget nonetheless.
Noodle dishes and rice plates round out the menu. Garlic noodles with beef were a sleeper hit, with wok-seared thick noodles and lots of bell peppers. Vermicelli bowls could have used a bigger handful of fresh herbs and a little more flavor on the grilled pork, but make a satisfying meal.
Rice plates include the classic shaken beef, with a dusky sauce zippy with black pepper, and garlicky lemongrass chicken. The menu promised this would be spicy, and I’d have liked it a little hotter, but the flavor of lemongrass was strong. Both of these came with bright, crunchy leafy green salads.
Co Mai’s already seems to be attracting a loyal bunch of regulars. On my visits we were surrounded by family groups at dinner and what appeared to be workers from the neighborhood on their lunch break at midday. The restaurant isn’t doing anything to break the culinary mold, but it’s offering big, inexpensive, honestly made and delicious portions of soup, appetizers, and noodle or rice plates, plus a few distinctive dishes.
It’s good to see more Vietnamese cuisine, a longtime strength of the Sacramento dining scene, coming to the grid. As the cooking at Co Mai’s shows, these flavors are too good to be confined to just one neighborhood.
Co Mai’s Kitchen
501 Broadway, 916-448-3577
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Beverage options: A beer and wine license is pending, according to a server, but meanwhile there’s soda, tea, and sweet Vietnamese iced coffee and Thai iced tea.
Vegetarian friendly: More so than many Vietnamese restaurants. There are several vegetarian options, marked on the menu.
Gluten-free options: Only a few dishes are gluten-free; owner Tuan Tu says he is having menus reprinted to reflect which ones, but for now gluten-sensitive guests should inquire when dining.
Noise levels: Modest, though music can be on the loud side.
Ambiance: Unassuming but welcoming, with comfortable booths, peach walls and some attractive decorative plaques.
Sacramento isn’t short on good Vietnamese food, but this new family-run place at the west end of Broadway is a strong entry into the thriving scene. Don’t miss the “Vietnamese udon” with housemade rice noodles and the mi quang, a central Vietnamese specialty.
Co Mai offers a nicely rendered lineup of the usual suspects of Vietnamese menus — pho, rice noodle bowls, savory egg rolls, shaken beef, crisp-crusted banh mi — plus some less-familiar items like banh beo (soft rice cakes), a thick and rich-flavored “Vietnamese udon” soup, and mi quang, a comforting bowl of yellow rice noodles with just a little broth and lots of herbs.
Service is on the basic side, though servers are friendly and welcoming. Dishes can sometimes come out of the kitchen slowly or in an odd order.
Dishes are well priced, with most in the $10 range, appetizers around $7 and banh mi $6. You can eat well, heartily and inexpensively here.