Carla Meyer

Dining: Quality Vietnamese food at Stockton Blvd. eatery

I arrived on a Tuesday night between waves of diners, stepping inside the medium-size, open dining area to encounter empty tables and relative silence at this usually bustling destination for Vietnamese food.

I was early and alone, but I told the host I would be part of a party of seven, so he pointed me to one of the extended tables in the middle of the restaurant.

It was an unusual few minutes of waiting in solitude, quietly sipping water until the arrival of my guests, including charming new friends from Italy and France. They were craving soup. I longed for more of the restaurant’s do-it-yourself spring rolls, which have a rabid following among those in the know.

Once everyone arrived, we ordered from all parts of the menu and the food expressed itself in typical fashion. The wealth of contrasting textures, all the colors, the variety of leafy greens, the seafood and meat, the little bites of creamy, crunchy rice cakes — it was all laid out before us, our plates covering the entire table, our hands busily reaching for food.

This was the Quan Nem Ninh Hoa I was so eager to share with visitors to Sacramento, for one of this city’s great culinary strengths beyond the downtown and midtown grid is the dynamic stretch of Stockton Boulevard known as Little Saigon.

Here in south Sacramento, you may well be amazed by both the thriving micro-economy and the vibrant cultural showcase. The shops are busy, the restaurants full, the streets alive, the interchanges potentially electric.

A mere 6 miles from midtown, this is a Sacramento that seems a world away. Behind the restaurant, for instance, is a place that makes tofu. You walk in, pick out a tub and pay cash. Farther along is the famed Huong Lan Sandwiches, the city’s banh mi champion. There’s so much to explore and to grasp.

Our meal began with the restaurant’s specialty, spring rolls that serve two for $15.95. At first glance, it’s a seemingly massive undertaking. They bring out thin, white discs of rice paper and, in this dried state, they appear inedible. I showed my guests what I knew about rice paper — one at a time, you dip them in the warm water and remove them in mere seconds. Less is more. When you set one on the plate, it won’t look soft enough. You’ll be tempted to dunk it further.

But as you reach for the pile of leafy romaine lettuce, mint, cilantro and other greenery and lay them on the paper, and as you add the barbecued ground pork known as Nem Nuong, the rice paper continues to absorb the water and soften. By the time you’re ready to fold and roll, it’s magic — the stiff white paper is soft, stretchy and strong.

You can dip your spring rolls in a mild sauce. You can eat them straight. You can add peppers from a jar for a little extra heat and tangy sweetness. The pork can be substituted with chicken, fish cakes or a vegetarian option such as tofu. Also on the plate are pickled carrots, daikon, cucumbers and peanuts crumbled for a additional texture and flavor.

But we were just getting warmed up. The restaurant began to get crowded. The soups arrived with some degree of drama. I needed no French translation for “gasp” when our French guest saw the extra-large bowl. How could she possibly eat it all? French cooking has had a significant influence on Vietnamese cooking, of course, most notably with the banh mi, which is served on a crispy baguette, and coffee, which is usually served iced with sweetened condensed milk.

Several of us ordered soups, most of which were a bargain at about $7.50. Hers had plump shrimp, mine large pieces of white fish. Hers had opaque noodles she had never seen before, mine more traditional long, stringy noodles. Our broths were deeply flavored and hearty, with a seafood underpinning and a balance of warm spices.

You hold the spoon in one hand, the chopsticks in the other and dig in. You dip your head. You scoop. You clutch. You slurp. You savor.

With that kind of hands-on focus, this is not necessarily casual eating. It’s practically a sport. It takes concentration. Look around at the other tables and you will see eating with intensity, if not élan.

Time flew by. We all compared notes, with French and Italian punctuating the exchanges. Laughter, too. For to indulge in this way is to share and enjoy and poke fun at ourselves for perhaps ordering so much food and yet eating so well. More food arriving meant more gasps, more laughter, more aromas and flavors.

The menu here is relatively expansive but easy to navigate. The spring rolls are a must-try item, practically on every visit. They’re ideal for sharing and there are so many ingredients and options available that you can make different rolls at each visit. There is also a section on the menu featuring vermicelli dishes, in which the mild, rice-based vermicelli can be enhanced with flavors according to the meats (or tofu), veggies and sauces you choose to add.

Same goes for the seven rice dishes (from $7.50 to $7.95). Com Suon Trung Cha Gio — grilled pork with fried eggs and eggroll on steamed rice — is easy to like for the mix of flavors and textures.

The soups here are not pho (those famed noodle soups with the clear, beef-based broths). Vietnamese restaurants tend to highlight their specialties directly in their name (and “pho” has inspired plenty of wordplay through the U.S.). Pho King II (I don’t make these names up, folks) is a place for excellent pho, one of dozens in the area. Quan Nem Ninh Hoa has a nice selection of delicious noodle soups on the broad menu, but its go-to dish is Nem nuong (ground pork barbecued and served, in this case, on skewers). The second half of the restaurant’s name, “Ninh Hoa,” refers to the southeastern coastal area of Vietnam.

It’s easy to go vegetarian at Quan Nem Ninh Hoa. The Mi Xao Chay, gently seasoned fried rice with tofu and assorted vegetables, is a hearty option, among many, for those choosing to go meatless.

Maybe the term “foodie” is overused or applied too eagerly, but my definition of foodie includes not only an appreciation for various cuisines but a willingness to extend beyond comfort zones. It’s easy to do so with Thai and Indian fare, and Vietnamese food is only a little less accessible to Western palates.

Still, during one early visit for dinner with two interns at The Bee, one of them unwrapped a mystery item cloaked in foil, looked at it, sniffed it and then ate it, followed by, “What is it?”

That’s a foodie! It turned out to be a mildly pickled pork that can be added to the spring rolls for more flavor.

Whether you’re a bona fide foodie, culturally curious or, like our French friend, simply in search of a hot, hearty and delicious soup after a long trip, Quan Nem Ninh Hoa is a reliable, often charming and largely delicious destination for this particular kind of Vietnamese cuisine.