Carla Meyer

Dining review: Harry's Cafe a fine deal for Vietnamese, Chinese and American fare

When you see a menu offering both Chinese and Vietnamese food, experience probably tells you to be wary, that the quality of the cooking is apt to be watered down for the sake of expediency.

That's a reasonable conclusion to draw – except in this case.

Harry's Cafe is the real deal because the food is a reflection of everything Harry Luong is all about. He's an American immigrant success story through and through, modest and unsung as he may be.

When I suggested this to the proprietor himself recently, he replied characteristically: "I have a little mom and pop place where I work 16 hours a day."

But it's so much more. And so is he.

Luong is an ethnic Chinese man who grew up in Vietnam and then fled to the United States in search of a better life. He worked multiple jobs for many years to support his family and provide unlimited opportunities. All the while, he had a dream – to someday open a restaurant.

He and his wife, Lynn, who runs the beauty salon next door, never took a vacation. Their three children are grown now, with degrees from schools such as UC Berkeley and UCLA. The youngest went to Dominican College on a basketball scholarship and has his own successful basketball skills training business.

Luong opened Harry's Cafe in late 2004. His eldest son, Larry, a lawyer for SMUD, owns the building, ensuring that the rent never goes up, as Harry likes to quip.

Luong gave himself an American first name when he arrived in this country at age 19 – after Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" – and included American-style breakfasts many years later when he opened his humble little cafe on 16th Street.

Chinese, Vietnamese, American – it's the man's food. It's who he is. And this is what he loves to do. Nothing is watered down or compromised to get all this food on one menu, which at last count contained more than 170 items. Meat eaters, vegetarians, even folks battling a cold or the flu, will leave happy and content. You'll enjoy the cafe and, if you visit often enough and pay attention long enough, you'll come to admire the man who runs it.

All that food and it gets to the table in mere minutes. The formula for success is admirable, too – good ingredients, honest cooking, large portions, low prices.

Much of the Chinese fare is cooked rapidly over high heat, and it's usually steaming and sizzling when it lands at your table. Plenty of meat, lots of vegetables and all the right seasonings. It's so fast, you might think they knew what you wanted before you did.

The Vietnamese dishes generally have meat or tofu, or something like eggplant paired with soft noodles. All of these dishes at Harry's are reliably good, though none will blow you away.

The Vietnamese soups, or pho, get their flavor after many hours of simmering. The most famous soup – Harry's "cold or flu" chicken vegetable soup – is best appreciated when you've got a runny nose, a sore throat or general wintertime blahs. It's not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and you won't find it cited in medical literature, but it's the best-tasting unofficial medicine you'll come across.

We liked nearly everything we tried over several visits and at all hours, the exception being a lemon chicken dish in which the lemony sauce was just too sweet and gelatinous for our tastes.

We loved the tenderness and complex flavors of the short rib stew over rice, another popular dish with Harry's regulars. The meat is so tender you won't need a knife, and the seasoning is so distinctive I'd know this stew anywhere. This dish takes so much work – and so much cooking ahead of time – that it's only available Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If you're there on Wednesday or Thursday, try the oxtail stew over rice.

I came to realize that anything on the menu with "Harry" in the title was going to be a winner – and that would include "Harry's omelet," which was perfectly cooked, without a hint of browning, and stuffed with ham, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers, onions and cheese. It's $8.95 and will leave you full until midnight.

Harry's Cafe is small, it's cute, it's cozy. It's the kind of place that just feels good, a perfect place to be a regular.

Luong is almost always there, greeting newcomers, chatting with regulars and keeping an eye on quality and consistency. One day in 2005, he had a terrible accident at the restaurant – dropping a large pot of hot soup and badly burning both arms. His doctor told him he'd never work at the restaurant again. It was too hard.

Luong recovered, wearing protective medical sleeves for eight months until his skin healed.

There's plenty to like about Harry's Cafe and about the man who made it happen. And now you know not to be fooled by the multicultural menu. It's Harry's food, Harry's dream, and the cafe is his modest, unsung success story.

Harry's Cafe

2026 16th St., Sacramento

(916) 448-0088

Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Closed Monday.

Full bar? No alcohol

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Takeout: Yes

Noise level: Low

Overall Three stars (good)

Small, charming and sincere, with reliably good food, hefty portions and good prices. With Harry Luong at the helm, it's a feel-good neighborhood spot.

Food Three stars (good)

Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine for lunch and dinner, and American-style breakfasts. The pancakes, waffles and omelets are very good. Other favorites include short rib stew, the "Cold or Flu" chicken soup, charbroiled shrimp over soft noodles, and a plethora of vegetable dishes with rice. The cafe could use some dessert options and a beer and wine license, both of which may be coming soon.

Service Three stars (good)

Fastest service in town. In addition to the servers, owner Harry Luong is almost always there, greeting newcomers and chatting with regulars.

Value Three 1/2 stars(very good)

Full meals range from $7.95 to $10.95. Portions are large and the cooking is consistently good.