Carla Meyer

Sacramento’s Thien Phu a welcoming dining experience

Ever had goat curry soup? The version at Thien Phu is worth trying.
Ever had goat curry soup? The version at Thien Phu is worth trying. Bee staff

There are so many restaurants and so many ways to eat in Little Saigon – the bustling stretch along Stockton Boulevard in south Sacramento – that it may be a challenge simply figuring out where to begin.

For those looking to dip a toe into this lively culinary scene, the experience can be like traveling thousands of miles on an exotic vacation in the span of a 12-minute drive from midtown.

Even though you’re within the city limits, the signage, the mix of businesses, the primary language used within them, along with the etiquette and customs, can make Little Saigon feel like the big Saigon. This can be a great thing, as long as you’re enterprising enough to make the trip.

One place worth getting your passport stamped in this Southeast Asia culinary wonderland is Thien Phu, a relatively new Vietnamese restaurant with great potential.

What distinguishes it from scores of others is that Thien Phu manages to pull off a rather challenging cultural coup: It serves a delicious, skillfully prepared, edgy and authentic style of food from the other side of the world while being accessible and welcoming to curious eaters who happen to come from the other side of town.

During three recent visits to Thien Phu, I found the service to be warm, inviting and attentive. It’s a welcome contrast for those who have been intimidated or put off by the matter-of-fact interactions at some places, or the confusing menus at others.

Owned by Steve Le, Thien Phu is a large, brightly lit and orderly restaurant where wonderful food is served by wonderfully personable people. Based on my encounter with Le, he not only has the charisma and sincerity to make his restaurant a special place, he has the attitude and approach to create a customer-service template for other restaurants to follow. If this happens, it could open Little Saigon up to a more diverse clientele and, perhaps most important, a greater prosperity.

Clearly, Le understands the importance of the overall dining experience. He told me as much when I called him after my third visit. He runs the restaurant with his wife, Maria Vu.

“My background is retail, and I was very concerned about good customer service. To me, customer service is everything,” said Le, who moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was 13. “It doesn’t matter how busy I am. I usually take time to come out from the kitchen and check on the customers. Cooking is my passion and I love customer input. When the customer enjoys my food, it is such a good feeling.”

If my recent meals were any indication, the feedback must be overwhelmingly positive. Le’s food is as outstanding as his restaurant’s service. The pho, that traditional beef or chicken broth soup poured over rice noodles, is made with great care and results in an unsurpassed balance of deep flavors that soothe the senses. The pho can be ordered in a variety of options. I like the rare steak, well-done brisket and tripe.

Pho, eaten for breakfast and throughout the day in Vietnam, is generally one of the few dishes in mainstream Vietnamese cuisine that is presented at the table in individual servings. Many Vietnamese dishes are served on large plates that are suitable for sharing. The Vietnamese tend to eschew milk and cheese in their cooking, and they are not fond of grease-laden dishes. Much of it is stir-fried, boiled, roasted or flash-fried.

The pork chop is exceptionally tender and delicious. The bon bo hue, the traditional spicy beef soup served over vermicelli, has a hearty, rustic sensibility combined with plenty of finesse. It’s a soup that rewards the courageous, one that’s served with, among other things, cubes of coagulated pig’s blood, pig’s feet that have been simmering for hours and an overall note of lemongrass woven into the flavor profile.

Then there are the goat dishes, including boiled goat, tender goat ribs and curry goat soup. All of them are superb. What’s that you say? Goat isn’t one of your go-to proteins? I would encourage you to suspend your misgivings and try these dishes.

Goat is the most popular meat in the world, but in the U.S. it largely is relegated to the immigrant communities. It has less fat than chicken and more protein than beef. Flavor-wise, it carries a distinctive tang and less gaminess than its reputation suggests. Like in Mexico, Greece and India, goat is beloved in Vietnam, though it can be a challenge to get it right. For one, the smell during preparation is not pleasant. Then there’s all that chin hair.

The chef at Thien Phu has great skill with goat. The ribs, with short, thin bones and plenty of meat and a good bit of tender fat, are rich and delicious, with a touch of sweetness and spiciness to the sauce.

The goat curry is much more complex, with a broth that’s jumping and pinging with flavor. Curry done right can be deeply satisfying, from the mouthfeel of the broth that coats and soothes the palate, to the heat that can really pack a wallop.

The challenge is to get it dialed in to your liking. I would start by requesting medium-level heat so your senses won’t overload. Then, you could advance from there, depending on how your tongue and sinuses hold up. The meat in the bowl is exceptionally tender, adequately fatty and very tasty. It is served on the bone, which is something not usually seen in American soups. This is my favorite dish at Thien Phu.

That pho I mentioned is first-rate, a wonderful meal in a bowl that is eaten with a spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other. You scoop some broth, grab some noodles and meat with the chopsticks, then slurp and munch and savor, over and over, your head hovering over the bowl. The bowls come in small and large sizes. I found the small to be more than enough.

Steve Le likely will stop by at your table, welcome you to his restaurant and regale you about his food. He will suggest that you don’t add any more sauces or herbs – bean sprouts, mint and other greenery are served on a plate with your pho – until you actually taste the soup. That’s excellent advice and, I must say, a sign of confidence, because what he’s really saying is that this so is so good, so well-conceived, that it needs few, if any, adjustments.

Here’s a restaurant that serves very good food and takes the eating experience to a new level by understanding that this is Little Saigon – in Sacramento. Customer service is the unifying principle here. With its friendly vibe and accessible feel, Thien Phu is a refreshing newcomer to this always-lively part of town. Le has the potential to take Thien Phu to new heights. He sets an example that other nearby restaurants would do well to follow.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

Thien Phu

6175 Stockton Blvd.

Sacramento

(916) 476-4052

Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; closed Wednesday

Beverage options: Beer and wine

Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat

Gluten-free options: Not listed

Noise level: Quiet

Ambiance Large, spacious and bright dining area; casual setting.

Overall

Less than a year old, Thien Phu has already distinguished itself for its friendly, attentive service and very good food. Most promising is that this restaurant is welcoming to newcomers to this way of eating while still satisfying aficionados.

Food

Very good pho in several options. The broth is much more nuanced and balanced than some places where the spices, especially star anise, is harsh on the palate. The pork chop dish is very tender and flavorful. But what stands out is the array of goat dishes, all done very well. The goat ribs and goat curry soup, among others, are highly recommended.

Service

As noted, service here is a cut above for Little Saigon, which tends to be matter-of-fact and minimalist when it comes to service. Owner Steve Le is very friendly and knowledgeable, and the rest of his staff follows suit.

Value

The portions are ample and the prices are reasonable for the quality of cooking. Good food for a bargain.

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