Here’s to the hardy, to the people who – to loosely paraphrase the great Stevie Nicks – eat soups all summer long.
For us, Sacramento’s recent mild weather is nice but immaterial. Consuming hot broth year round has fortified us against the idea that summer soups must be chilled and contain cucumber.
My soup-stalwart bona fides include once having ordered clam chowder at Hooters (long story). We devotees know a hot soup’s natural enemy is not a seasonal shift, anyway, but a seasoning overload – the over-salted taste that endangers bowls of canned condensed tomato and fine-dining lobster bisque in equal measure.
Coriander, a small, year-old Vietnamese restaurant at Alhambra Boulevard and S street in Sacramento, is a soup enthusiast’s dream. Its chicken pho, clear in appearance, brisk yet substantial in taste, is neither salty nor sweet – as phos become when too much sugar and/or MSG is added.
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There’s no coming back from pho over-seasoning, no matter the prettiness of its side dish of Thai basil, bean sprouts and jalapeño slices. At Coriander, the side ingredients are so fresh they nearly spring from their plate. Their best trait, however, is how nonessential they are to the broth’s flavor.
Married co-owners Kristi and Kevin Ng opened Coriander – which also makes a fine banh mi sandwich and other impressive, non-liquid-based dishes – in April 2014. Kristi, a Vietnamese native, saw a dearth of her homeland’s cuisine in midtown.
She has a point. Outside the nexus of Little Saigon, along Stockton Boulevard, Vietnamese restaurants often seem outnumbered by Japanese and Thai places.
Like Coriander, Viet Ha – offshoot of the long-standing Florin Road restaurant Viet-Ha – recently stepped in to fill the gap, with a mostly takeout operation on Broadway. Though its Chipotle-esque concept of letting customers pick proteins and flavor combinations for rice and noodle dishes and banh mi sandwiches is a clever one, the menu lacks a single soup.
Coriander feels homier, because of its soups, which include the spicy bun bo hue pork-and-beef noodle and the hearty chicken Vietnamese udon, and because it’s full service. That service is exceptionally friendly. Theresa, our server on a recent lunch visit, happily relayed questions about ingredients to the kitchen even as the dining room filled up.
Coriander’s nearly monochromatic color scheme of blacks, whites and grays does not reach Theresa’s warmth levels. But the design is clean and modern and makes good use of space within the 46-person-capacity room by including a small bar near the kitchen. There’s also seating on a fenced-off but otherwise open outdoor patio, which feels private enough despite its proximity to Alhambra.
Coriander acknowledges homes past and present with a striking, wall-length black-and-white photograph of a traditionally dressed woman, captured mid-doff of her bamboo hat and standing before the state Capitol.
Kristi Ng said she and Kevin, a veteran chef who does most of Coriander’s cooking (the Ngs previously owned Placerville’s Wonderful Chinese Restaurant), alter traditional Vietnamese dishes only slightly to suit midtown tastes. For instance, the Saigon crepe holds chicken instead of the customary pork belly, because Coriander’s customers want less fat, Kristi said.
Most dishes come from Kristi’s home recipes or those of her aunt or Kristi’s late mother. The menu travels from north to south Vietnam, showcasing Kristi’s central Vietnamese hometown, Hue, in the bun bo hue. Enhanced by lemongrass and cooked blood cake, the earthy-tasting broth satisfies so fully on its own that its meatball, brisket and braised-pork contents seem like bonuses.
The Vietnamese udon, filled with thick, chewy noodles handmade from rice flour and tapioca, might be the ultimate restaurant soup that passes for homemade. Its deep chicken flavor summons images of a stockpot simmering for hours – of a source of relief on sick days home from school. There are enough shrimp in the broth to also suggest a coastal vacation, thus soothing in a different way. Scallions and fried shallots add enough bite to break the reverie and remind you it’s lunchtime, in midtown, and you need to get back to work.
Coriander holds its menu to one sheet, a sign of confidence in a suit-all-tastes local Vietnamese restaurant culture in which “I will have the No. 76, please” is a common phrase. Such confidence is warranted everywhere but on the pho front. Coriander offers just two, chicken and beef, and the beef never dazzles like the restaurant’s other soups.
It’s not bad. The noodles within it taste fresh, just as they do in the chicken pho. But its broth does not enhance its components – brisket, meatballs and rib-eye steak – the way the pho chicken does its pieces of free-range poultry.
Coriander’s flavor-balanced banh mi can stand up to any other in town. That’s saying a lot, because this sandwich is so ubiquitous that I expect McDonald’s soon will introduce a limited-time banh mi, to alternate with the McRib.
A soft French roll, lightly coated with house-made butter and paté, holds slices of Coriander’s spicy grilled pork, which is reminiscent of Korean bulgogi and accompanied by marinated daikon and carrots and sandwich-defining jalapeño slices. This sandwich beats the vegetable-heavy pork banh mi at Asian-fusion restaurant Star Ginger, which sits just down Alhambra from, and in clear competition with, Coriander.
Coriander’s prices can be higher than those at Star Ginger and at Little Saigon restaurants, though the difference is not daunting. Coriander’s banh mi is huge and costs $7.95, soft drink included. The chicken pho ($9.50) comes in a huge bowl.
Spring rolls, often sure things at Vietnamese restaurants, disappoint here. They entail big globs of either pork sausage or tofu atop the filling and below the roll’s delicate, non-fried rice-paper skin. The proportions are off, and the flavors too restrained to compensate.
With the Saigon crepe appetizer, however, the Ngs show a mastery of flavor and texture. A tender filling of chicken, bean sprouts and shrimp offsets the rice-flour-and-coconut-milk crepe’s crunch before everything gets wrapped in lettuce and coriander and heads for a dip of chili-inflected vinaigrette. Salty, sweet, cool, hot, crispy, soft – one could not wish for more in a bite.
1899 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 m Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Beverage options: Beers on tap and in bottles. A few red and white wines
Ambiance: The black, white and gray color scheme is slightly chilly, but the dining room’s clean, modern design makes good use of a small space. The corner restaurant benefits from plenty of natural light thanks to its abundance of windows. Coriander’s patio feels private enough, considering its nearness to busy Alhambra Boulevard.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Moderate
The food ‑ especially soups – and friendly service stand out in this small Vietnamese restaurant.
Coriander will satisfy soup aficionados, with a standout chicken pho and densely flavored bon bo hue and Vietnamese udon. The beef pho is less memorable. But the restaurant’s well-balanced banh mi sandwich holds its own against all others in town (and there are many).
The servers are friendly and attentive, explaining dishes and inquiring about whether the diner has been to Coriander or eaten Vietnamese food before, and offering instructions about how to eat some dishes.
The pho ($9.95 beef, $9.50 chicken) costs more here than at some Vietnamese places, but the price seems fair given the high quality of ingredients and big portions. Same goes for the banh mi ($7.95, including a drink).