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We food lovers are always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing. We exchange notes on recently opened restaurants, discuss current culinary trends and investigate leads on excit-ing dining gems. We’re eager for new flavors and adventures.
Still, there’s great value in occasionally revisiting restaurants that launched us on our flavor-seeking careers. With that in mind, I recently ate at Lemon Grass Restaurant, a local institution that single-handedly educated many a Sacramento palate about Vietnamese and Thai cuisines.
When it opened in 1989, the majority of customers were perplexed by owner Mai Pham’s menu. “People asked for bread the first five years we were open,” recalls Pham. But in her attractive, Western-style dining room, newbies found a safe place to sample her Vietnamese salad rolls, crammed full of pink poached shrimp and noodles and served with fresh basil and mint. It seemed weird to wrap handfuls of these herbs around the rolls, but we did it, then
immersed the clumsy package into a peanut-sprinkled black bean dipping sauce. The flavors were dazzling. We ordered catfish in clay pot—another traditional Vietnamese dish—and marveled at its tender texture and garlicky-sweet flavor.
Now, 22 years later, the region’s food landscape—and Pham’s customers—are markedly more sophisticated. “Our guests are well-traveled now,” she says. “Quite a few have been to Vietnam and Thailand, and many cook this style of food at home. They know how to order it, and they like it hot. They ask lots of questions, like ‘Where did these ingredients come from?’” And that clay pot catfish? “Oh, I can’t take it off the menu now,” she says. “People get really upset.”
Eager for a trip down memory lane—Lemon Grass was one of my first Vietnamese food experiences as a college student in 1990—I headed there on a wintry evening for a meal. As I dug into the food, I was struck by the gentle flavors, which somehow tasted more muted than much of the Vietnamese and Thai food I enjoy these days. It occurred to me that, because the restaurant’s clientele is so varied, Pham may still be in “education” mode, keeping the heat to a minimum for people not yet familiar with the cuisine. (Savvy diners can ask for a crank-up of the heat.)
I relished the “shaking” beef (made tender by a pineapple and oyster sauce marinade) and the plump, bright-yellow chicken satay with its tasty peanut sauce. The nourishing monk’s curry featured lovely big chunks of fresh vegetables, including creamy bites of deep-orange squash, swimming in a fragrant curry coconut milk sauce. And those signature salad rolls were as splendid as I remember from my college days. The crispy vegetable rolls, stuffed with shredded taro and wood ear mushrooms, required a deft wrap in fresh herbs (my technique is better now), and their soy-lime dipping sauce was the perfect, zingy partner.
A restaurant facelift and a new patio will quietly debut in January, along with an updated menu that will include a selection of vibrant small plates and a few rare Vietnamese dishes. Pham says the remodel is a statement of commitment to Sacramento, “to let people know I’m not going anywhere.”
Pham isn’t one to rest on her laurels. A consultant and author, she’s set to open a new East Sacramento restaurant, Star Ginger, at the beginning of the year, serving affordable “street foods” from seven Asian countries. Pham calls them “Asian tapas.” She’s already set up small Star Ginger pilot sites at universities around the country. Pham envisions Star Ginger as her business model for the future. “I want to make an impact beyond Sacramento,” she says. “I want to be part of the national dining scene.” Luckily for us, her home base—and her flagship restaurant, Lemon Grass—will remain right here in Sacramento.
DIY: Love the Vietnamese salad rolls? Get the recipe on Lemon Grass’ website
Cure for the winter blues: Order Lemon Grass soup, a fragrant lemongrass-coconut milk broth filled with chicken, mushrooms and tomatoes
601 Munroe St., Sacramento; (916) 486-4891; lemongrassrestaurant.com
Hours: Lunch Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., dinner Monday–Thursday 5–9 p.m. and Friday–Saturday 5–10 p.m., closed Sunday