I'm not sure why; but for some reason I'd been drawn to the "coming soon" sign in Plaza del Sol for some time. I really have no explanation for it........but something told me that this place wasn't going to be your typical Pho or Mi joint. A couple of weeks ago, I'd heard about a place opening on Convoy that made their own Banh Pho from scratch and thought "well that's nice.......". Visions of great possibilities doused by poorly a executed concept, a la Mignon Pho came to mind, so I tempered my expectations a bit. Still, it seemed like eons before I saw the Grand Opening sign for Nam An.
Unfortunately, I'd already eaten lunch and was headed to Chicago/Madison the next day. And things had been kinda "blah" for me foodwise since we returned from vacation. This time the blahs seemed to be hanging on a bit longer than usual....so I wasn't really too excited about another Pho shop in the area. Until........ I received a text from "Yummy Yummy" about eating at Nam An. In the text she mentioned one specific dish. This got me pretty excited about coming back.....
It would be a while until I was able to free up some time for a visit to Nam An. My timing, however would be quite fortuitous. This past week, Ballast Point Brewery had a special tasting for International IPA Day, so with PeterL and his lovely wife, Ange in tow we attended the tasting. Feeling a bit peckish afterwards, I suggested hitting up Nam An.....
We arrived to fairly empty restaurant and were handed some menus..... I really wasn't looking for Pho, Com Tam, or Com Chien... where the heck was the "good stuff"? And then it arrived, the drinks menu.... but it's not the beer and soju that grabbed my attention, it was this:
And there it was....... Seeing Vietnamese dishes that I'd never had in San Diego before..... Peter was pretty shocked as well.
And so we started off.... the Surf Clam Salad ($6.50):
This was the spiciest dish of the evening....it had some kick. I loved the watercress, though I don't think Peter and Angela were quite as fond of it. There was a bit left at the end of dinner, so I took it home to the Missus, a fan of watercress, who just loved it.
About this time we had our first encounter with the very friendly and gracious Carolyn, whom I believe is one of the owners. She explained that the "appetizer" menu is only available from Thursdays to Saturdays, since she has to go to LA and Orange County to source what she needs. Thus, the menu changes every week, and they run out of items.... So no Muc Don Thit, stuffed squid...bummer.
The Deep Fried Calamari was very tender and fried well, but no consolation.
Next was the dish I'd been looking forward too Be Thui ($9), rare, almost raw veal, dusted with roasted rice powder.
Since this is veal, it's quite toothsome and the rice powder gives it a somewhat nutty flavor. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoy it. I've usually had it served with Tuong Cu Da, a fermented bean and soy sauce with ginger. This one was served with a sauce made with Mam Tom....very pungent and heady, but also with a touch of fruity sweetness to it. On a later visit, the Missus asked Carolyn what gave this sauce the fruity edge. Carolyn was happy to oblige, and told the Missus it was pineapple. Good dish.....
The Sea Snail Green Mango Salad ($6) was delicious..... man these snails must have been humongous.
The snails were fairly tender, with a mildly buttery texture like large abalone. The green mango added a bit of a "tannic" - puckery feel to the dish, Rau Rama anise-pepper-bitter-mintiness.
Rare Steak Marinated in Lemon, called Bo Tai Chanh ($4.50).
Wonderfully tender rare filet mignon slight "cooked" by the acid in a fish sauce-lemon juice based sauce. Onions added a bit of bite to the dish, chilies a mild heat, the rau ram gave it a nice herbaceousness. Personally, I'd like this even more "rare", but it is quite good. If it sound scarey to you, and it shouldn't, think of this as being similar to Thai Beef Salads.
The Bloody Clams in Tu Xuyen Sauce ($10) is a favorite of mine.
The clams are small and have decent flavor, opening them are sometimes rather ponderous....but that sauce. I told Carolyn that I could lick the plate....she told me "no, there's no licking the plate here, I'll give you more sauce!" I believe the base of this Nuoc Mau, the basic Vietnamese Caramel Sauce, there's fish sauce, and also I believe garlic in these. It is a messy, sticky dish, that gives true meaning to "finger licking good"! You'll need to wash your hands afterwards, but it is well worth it.
Seeing how much Peter, Ange, and I were enjoying our meal, Carolyn gave us some Oc Cha, some wonderfully flavored snail based "sausage". The snails added a nice toothsome sweetness to go with the smokey flavor of the leaves it was steamed in.
We left quite satisfied, this is well prepared Vietnamese "beer food". After being married for a while I have a good idea of the Missus's taste preferences, so I made sure to bring Her for a visit "stat". She loved the food and I think we have a new restaurant for our rotation. Carolyn told us that she "wants to serve good food with great ingredients." She would rather not have an item on the menu than serve a subpar dish. As the night wore on, I noticed that younger folk were bringing in their parents and grandparents.....a very good sign.
This led me to ask Peter a question.....his Mom is a fantastic cook. I asked Peter if he'd bring his Mom, also a pretty finicky eater here. Without hesitation he said, "yes, of course....." I think that says quite a lot.
And I still haven't gotten around to the Pho yet, have I?
Nam An Vietnamese Restaurant
4690 Convoy St
San Diego, CA 92111
Currently, the "bar" menu is only available Thursday thru Saturday.