This wins for favorite restaurant visit of the week. Nem Nuong in Rosemead is known for excelling in the preparation of one particular meat, called…well you guessed it, Nem Nuong, a traditional Vietnamese barbeque food. It’s an itty bitty unassuming restaurant hidden behind a consistently busy In-N-Out drive thru.
Our family met with a few relatives here for a Sunday lunch. There’s usually quite a wait, but one of my uncles was nice enough to come early and hold down our table for nine. I saw many people having the Bun Bo Hue, a beef noodle soup with beef shank, pig’s feet and blood. We didn’t try it this time, as we ordered family style, but I’m noting down for my next visit.
To start, we had about a bagajillion orders of Dac Biet Banh Beo Chen. Simple rice cakes steamed in individual shallow dishes. They were topped with a sprinkle of ground salted dried shrimp, a buttery crouton dot and green onions. Cute, aren’t they? They two larger bowls in the middle are nuoc num – a plain and a spicy version. To eat, spoon the nuoc nam over the Banh Beo and dig away. It’s usually finished in 2-3 bites. The rice cake itself is a very simple steamed dough, almost neutral in flavor but with a addictive consistency similar to a cross between fun and soft sponge. The ground shrimp – shrimp dust! gives it a salty edge that clings on your tongue for a minute before melting away. An unexpected bite of the crouton rounded out with green onions and this massive dish you see here was finished by just two people in minutes!
For the “main” eating part we ordered the house special, Nem Nuong Hinh Hoa. This “construct your own” entree is accompanied by many sides (which we did not know they charge (a lot) extra for and ended with a nasty surprise on our bill!) The first side that came with a mixture of various herbs and vegetables, called Rau Song. The same things you get with Pho only with the addition of lettuce and, hidden on the bottom, thinly sliced carrots and cucumber. Every was sooo green and tasted incredibly fresh. Ah, the virtues of fresh produce. Maybe this justifies the extra charges?
This is the dipping sauce for the rolls we were to make using the Nem Nuong. This is the only restaurant I’ve been to that offers this sauce. The rolls are typically dipped in the same nuoc num that was used for the Banh Beo, a very liquidy, thin, with a tangy, sweet/sour flavor. The sauce here, on the other hand was served steaming hot in a large bowl. I thought it was soup at first! It’s very thick, with a gloppy consistency and more sugary sweet than I would prefer. Other than just hot plain sweet, I could not make out other flavors… I like nuoc nam better but it’s definitely very usual and glad I had the opportunity to try it.
The waitress also brought out plates of Dia Bun. This is vermicelli tightly layered together in a pan and then steamed. Cut neatly into single serving squares and topped with the same things as the Banh Beo, minus the croutons, this was the “starch” component of the dish. Still warm, I marveled over how they managed to get the vermicelli so tightly packs yet keep each layer see-thru thin.
And here is comes, our plate of Nem Nuong and Family! On either ends are two sticks of Nem Nuong. The menu describes it as charbroiled pork meatballs on skewers, but it’s so much more than that! The meatballs are slightly sweet with a salty/sour vinegar edge to them. They have just the right bounce and chew with juice seriously squirting out with every bite and the outside is beautifully charred crisp. The long sticks in the middle (Cha Ram Tom) are like spring rolls, only five times thinner and enclose nothing but seasoned chopped up shrimp. These would make killer snacks at a pupu party! The two rectangles below the Cha Ram Tom is called Nem Chua Nuong, also charbroiled, they look like mini Nem Nuong, but the flavors are on complete opposites ends of the spectrum. These sour pork patties are usually eaten cold with a big piece of raw garlic and pepper on a baguette. The pork is “cooked” through a extensive salt and souring process. The end result is meat that still looks raw but is sour tangy and very “porky.” Here they actually cook the meat over the grill till it’s hot. I’m not sure how I feel towards hot and crunchy Nem Chua, but like the sauce, was happy to try something new. If you look hard enough, at the top of the plate you can see a green leaf sticking out. This Nem Cap is the Nem Chua wrapped in a banana leaf before grilling. I enjoyed this one a lot as it keep the Nem Chua juicier as opposed to directly grilling and absorbed some of the mellow, homey banana leaf flavors.
Now that everything is present, you must be wondering how the heck we combine it all. First take a disc of dried rice paper (Banh Trang) and soak it briefly in a shallow plate of warm water. Lay the Banh Trang on your plate and use it as a based for the layering in the vegetables, herbs, a square of Dia Bun, the “meat” of your choice (I elected for a cut of the Nem Nuong). When finished constructing, fold in the sides and roll up tightly. Then dip in the massive bowl of thick steaming sauce and viola! Vietnamese food rocks my world. The variations on this one dish alone are endless, you can first dip the vermicelli in the sauce or put the sauce in before rolling up, throw in all or none of the meats… And this whole meal, everything we had tasted of the words “clean, fresh and simple”. Yet to even think of personally making the dishes, especially the Nem Chua and Nem Nuong is waay out of my field (at least for now).
To finish, a cup of Che Sam Bo Luong (“mixed dried fruit in light syrup”) to go. The syrup is of drinkable consistently, just a tad sweet with a bit of herb-y and ginger flavors. In the drink/dessert are red Chinese dates, seeded logans, various nuts and what I considered to be sweetened seaweed. I’m sure there are proper names for these ingredients… But order it anyways – it’s refreshing, slightly healthy and a perfectly sweet way to complement a lunch that was all at once complex from an outsider’s view yet made from the very basic of Vietnamese staples.
9016 Mission Dr.
Rosemead, CA 91770