For photographs of these Vietnamese dishes, view Anne Fishbein's Nem Nuong Hoa slideshow.
Brian Bullen, the guy in charge of the film ads here, is an eater with a fairly specific obsession. If I write about an Alhambra Chinese restaurant, he’ll tell me that I need to try the Central Vietnamese food at Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa. If I write about an Indonesian place, he’ll suggest Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa. When I write about Vietnamese noodles, I know that the first thing I see the next morning will be a plug for Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa.
Bullen does seem to have pretty serious bona fides in the area of Vietnamese food. He goes to Vietnam more often than some of us go to the beach, and he slings around the fish sauce himself. He claims that his mother-in-law makes the best bun bo hue in the world, although that fact cannot be independently verified. His wedding was catered by Brodard, the famous nem nuong restaurant in Westminster, which is a pretty good indicator of his seriousness on the subject. So when I recently mentioned a great bowl of bun bo hue at Pho Minh, the pho bac specialist in South El Monte, it seemed as if I had barely clicked “send” before an impassioned plea for Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa hit my mailbox. Bullen is not a man to let an opportunity to discuss nem nuong go to waste.
Nem nuong, the emblematic dish of the Kanh Hoa region of central Vietnam, is a kind of bouncy pork meatball impaled on a skewer, grilled over an open flame, and served smoky and sizzling and naked on a plate.
I am an admirer of Brodard, but I have always kind of resented the way the restaurant always rolls up the nem nuong in rice paper for you, as if the proprietor didn’t trust you not to disgrace the output of the chef. My standard for nem nuong has always been Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, a Rosemead restaurant named after a nem nuong–happy town in the Kanh Hoa province, which also happens to serve my favorite local version of banh beo chen, a Hue-style dish of tiny, slippery rice cakes, steamed in tiny condiment dishes, dusted with ground shrimp. They slide down the throat like fresh oysters. Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa is a happy place.
But I’ll be damned if Bullen wasn’t right — the nem nuong at Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa are superior examples of the breed. The restaurant isn’t much to look at — the usual mini-mall storefront squished between a check-cashing place and a wateria in an unglamorous stretch of western Alhambra, with a few tables, arrangements of Sriracha sauce and green-plastic chopsticks.
The bun bo hue is definitely one of the better versions in town, although it leans toward the organ-intensive end of the spectrum — chewy noodles in a bright-red beef broth spiked with the requisite pig’s foot and blood Jell-O, almost intolerably funky without a handful of torn mint and a squeeze of fresh lime. (Even with the lime and herbs, the house specialty bun nuoc leo, a fermented fish soup dosed with the ultrastrong herb rau ram, is a little too much for me.) Kanh Hoa’s banh beo chen would probably seem okay if I hadn’t had Ninh Hoa’s finer version, but the rice cakes are a little stiff, even mealy in comparison to those at the Rosemead restaurant. There is house-made rau ma, astringent pennyworth juice that tastes like freshly mown lawn, and strong black coffee dripped to order.
But that nem nuong! At Kanh Hoa as at Ninh Hoa, nem nuong is served as part of a two-person combination platter, flanked with tiny pork patties grilled in banana leaves and a heap of cha ram tom, crunchy cigarette-size egg rolls filled with perhaps a half-gram of shrimp apiece. At Kanh Hoa, there are also the sour fermented pork lozenges called nem chua, studded with hot chiles and spiked with a single peppercorn, a preparation as complex as Italian charcuterie. If the platter is for four, it is supplemented with standard-issue Vietnamese spring rolls, a few of the vermicelli mats called banh hoi, and a small pile of lemongrass-marinated grilled beef. The spicy, sweet fish-sauce dip, thickened with ground carrots, is as orange as a Union 76 sign.
At Kanh Hoa, assembly is distinctly required. You moisten the rice paper until it is sticky and just pliable, shake off the excess water, and lay it out on a plate. Then you delicately layer it with scraps of bean sprouts and shredded carrot, cilantro and mint, Vietnamese purple basil and rau ram, perhaps some cucumber for crunch, and then the nem nuong, or, better yet, the nem nuong and one of the skinny egg rolls for crunch. You wrap all of this into a kind of slender, translucent burrito. You want to fill a disc of rice paper full enough to transform it into a small essay in the sharp pungency of Asian herbs but not so full that you might mistake it for a Nerf football. Moisten and roll, moisten and roll, in a rhythm you might have picked up backstage at a Burning Spear concert. After a half-hour, you are happy, full and stinking of garlic.
Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa, 1700 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 943-7645. Open Wed.-Mon., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$24. Cash only. Recommended dishes: special combination for two or four; bun bo hue.