For those who aren't familiar and are wondering about the similar-sounding names of the restaurants, nem nuong (Vietnamese grilled pork patties) originated in the town of Ninh Hoa, in Khanh Hoa province, on the South-Central coast of Vietnam. My hometown is an hour north, so since I make my own nem nuong, there's really little need for me to go out and buy it. Gee, see what I do for my readers? Anyway, since I don't want to repeat myself, you can read my recipe for nem nuong with instructions on how to make it and wrap it in rice paper. And for comparisons to Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa. If you're in Orange County, my nem nuong restaurant of choice is Brodard Restaurant in Garden Grove.
OK, now back to Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa. Or well, a slight detour first. Nem nuong to me is a summertime dish. Growing up in Oregon, the plate full of herbs to wrap up with rice paper usually wasn't in season until then. So during this particularly hot summer, Henry Chan of Henry Chan's Food Videos wanted a salad. Well, a plateful of herbs counts in my book as a salad. So after vetoing various restaurant suggestions, he finally agreed to try it out. Hehe, that was my intention all along, but I had to offer worse sounding suggestions first ie. Souplantation. I'm tricky that way. ;) Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa is located on Valley Boulevard on the west side of Atlantic Boulevard in a tiny strip mall. I'm used to going east on Valley when hunting for good eats so this was quite a departure for me. Apparently they've been there for two years now.
The restaurant is pretty tiny. Around the corner to the left there's maybe four more tables. And if you look closely on the mirrored back wall, you'll see two specials listed - Bun Nuoc Leo Soc Trang (Vietnamese Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup in Savory Broth with Fish, Roast Pork, and Shrimp) and Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese Hue-Style Beef Noodle Soup). When I mentioned the noodle soups to Henry, I joked that it's not just Chinese restaurants that have a secret hidden menu. Actually, the soups were listed, but I rarely ever see bun nuoc leo Soc Trang listed on any menu. So of course, he wanted to order it. Since my youngest aunt's husband hails from Soc Trang, in the Mekong Delta near the Cambodia border, I can get this soup at home. It's similar to bun mam, the very pungent noodle soup made of fermented pickled fish, except in bun nuoc leo the fermented fish is strained out and the resulting broth is more clear. There were slices of fish, pork, and shrimp with rice vermicelli noodles. Served with a side of mint, water spinach stalks, red cabbage, and limes. I actually thought the fish sauce flavor was a little weak. Must be the Vietnamese in me. Henry thought it very good because it wasn't fishy tasty and just light enough for a hot day. We also ordered their namesake nem nuong cuon (Vietnamese pork patty rice paper rolls). An order of 3 rolls with cha ram tom (Vietnamese shrimp egg rolls) is only $3.50. I think it's an extra $1 or $1.25 if you want an order of 4 rolls. If you're comparing, this is slightly cheaper than Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa which charges $4.99 for 4 rolls. And much cheaper than Brodard, which charges $6 for 4 rolls. I know, I sound so cheap right? But hey, I know you're comparing too. I actually wanted to roll my own, but Henry said we should get them pre-made to see what the restaurant's version would look like. I told him it would just have lettuce, no herbs since they don't know what people would eat. And sure enough, there's just the nem nuong, cha ram, lettuce, cucumber, and chives. We also ordered rau ma (Vietnamese pennywort drink) for $1.75. If the plateful of herbs for the soup, or the lettuce in the nem nuong cuon didn't satisfy his salad requirement for the day, I think the pennywort drink certainly did. While I enjoyed my meal, I never did get around to eating the bun bo Hue that Eat, Drink, & Be Merry wanted me to try. So the following week (Or was it just a few days later?), one of my childhood friends called me up because she had a bun bo Hue craving. And since her mother is from Khanh Hoa province, I suggested we try out the restaurant to get her opinion. Bun bo Hue, the other popular Vietnamese beef noodle soup, should have a lemongrass flavor with a red spicy chili base. It has rice vermicelli noodles with pig's feet and blood cubes. Mini-rant here. No it is NOT pho. Calling bun bo Hue a variation of pho is like saying fettuccine alfredo is a version of spaghetti. Sure it's easy to reference a more popular dish when trying to describe it, but in both cases: different noodles + different flavors = different dishes entirely. OK? Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa's rendition was good, but the broth was not as spicy or strong in lemongrass flavor as my friend and I would prefer. My best bun bo Hue is still Bun Bo Hue An Nam in San Jose. My friend prefers the version at Pho Pasteur in Rosemead. Still, the noodles, pig's feet, and blood cubes tasted fresh, and though we split the bowl, we both slurped everything down. This $5.25 bowl comes with an herb plate of mint, cilantro, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), red cabbage, bean sprouts, and limes. We also ordered a Central Vietnamese favorite of banh beo chen tom chay (Vietnamese steamed rice discs topped with dried shrimp). A platter of 9 banh beo is $4.25. Again with the comparisons, Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa serves a platter of 12 for $4.99. But I thought the banh beo here were slightly better - smoother, softer. Just look at how very tender the freshly steamed banh beo looks up close. I also liked that the dried shrimp weren't as dried out as Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa's version. Mmm. We scarfed these down. I could easily make a meal of several platters of banh beo. Hehe. Actually, I have. When I get it homecooked for free. :P OK, now back to their signature nem nuong. You can also opt to roll your own rice paper rolls, which I heartily suggest you do because you'll get more herbs such as tia to (purple perilla), mint, shredded carrots. Plus, that's really the way Vietnamese would eat it anyway. A two-person special of $12.95 includes 2 nem nuong, 4 nem cap la chuoi (Vietnamese grilled pork patties wrapped in banana leaves), 4 nem chua nuong (Vietnamese grilled pickled pork patties), 6 cha ram tom, a plate of herbs, a stack of rice paper, and dipping sauce. Again with the comparisons, a similar order at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa costs $13.99. A whole $1 more! *Gasp* :P Since my friend and I were already eating bun bo Hue and banh beo, we asked if they could split the order for just one person, and they did. So what you see below is half of the two-person special for $6.50. It was still quite a generous portion for the two of us. Close-ups of the herb platter with shredded carrots, cucumber slices, lettuce, mint, rau ram, tia to, cilantro, and bean sprouts. The meat platter with the aforementioned nem cap la chuoi, cha ram tom, nem nuong, and nem chua nuong. Incidentally, like Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, they also specialize in to-go orders of their nem chua nuong. My youngest uncle prefers to get it here and I must say the pickled pork patty here is much better - slightly more sour, with small slivers of garlic and jalapenos for a spicy kick. The nem nuong itself though is a slightly smaller portion than that served at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa. But my friend says she much prefers my version, or rather our hometown version, because the meat is more tender, the mini-hamburger patty shape makes it easier to cook and eat, without any artificial coloring to give it that pink look. Hehe, we debated whether we just prefered food from our hometown, or if our hometown food really is better overall. ;) Stack of rice paper for you to dip into water yourself. And nuoc mam cham (Vietnamese fish sauce dipping sauce). While it doesn't compare to Brodard, I liked this version better than Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa's, which is a little too heavy on the garlic and sweetness for my taste. Now that you've seen all those components, you can watch me put it all together here. The funny thing is, while I show you my video, I was too embarrassed to have my friend film it in case I might show up in the video. I know, I'm kooky that way. Besides, don't you like it when I do things one-handed anyway? ;) She also gave me a hard time about rolling from the top down, since she says rolling from the bottom up makes it tighter. Hey! My rice paper roll would have been tighter, with the ends folded in, if I hadn't done it one-handed! Hmph!
So my final assessment? Because Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa is slightly cheaper, I slightly prefer it over Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa. Yeah, I know, I'm cheap like that. The restaurant also serves a handful of rice dishes and pho. But really, as I always say, if a restaurant names itself after a particular dish, order that dish! Who else ate at Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa?
Eat, Drink, & Be Merry visited and asked for my opinion.
Other Central Vietnamese restaurants:
Quan Mien Trung Vietnamese Cuisine - Rosemead
Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant - Rosemead
Ngu Binh Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Quan Hy Vietnamese Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Quan Vy Da Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant
1700 W. Valley Blvd., #C Alhambra, CA
10 a.m. to 9 p.m.