Nam Vietnamese Brasserie: A Favorite Daughter Ventures Out On Her Own
When you grow up in a legendary restaurant family, it’s not surprising that you follow in the same path.
Anne Le Ziblatt’s parents opened the 12-table Vung Tau restaurant in San Jose in 1985. It was such a hit that less than two years later, it moved to a larger location nearby that now serves more than 150 diners daily. Le Ziblatt later went on to co-found and manage with her aunt, the restaurants Tamarine in Palo Alto, and the now defunct Bong Su in San Francisco. She also worked in restaurant public relations for a spell.
But one thing she hadn’t done was open her own restaurant.
Her Nam Vietnamese Brasserie opened its cheery doors a few weeks ago in downtown Redwood City.
It’s a fast-casual concept, where you order at the counter, take a seat at a table, and wait for your food to be brought to you.
But Le Ziblatt prefers to call it “fine casual.” Indeed, it’s far more stylish than most other fast-casual concepts that lean more utilitarian in looks. When I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant last week, I was surprised by how lovely the decor is. It takes inspiration from the fishing village in Vietnam, where she was born. It’s done up with a fish scale-tiled floor, fishing basket ceiling lights, and colorful murals.
In fact, don’t miss the “Instagrammable” mural just to the side of the glassed-fronted kitchen. It depicts a noodle vendor. Le Ziblatt had a real noodle bowl cut in half and mounted on to the wall with real chopsticks, so patrons can have fun posing for pics as if they’re eating a piping hot bowl of pho.
“I don’t want people to feel like they have to hurry up and eat, and leave,” Le Ziblatt says. “I want them to linger and feel like they want to be here.”
The menu is compact but well thought out, with much of it based on Le Ziblatt’s family recipes.
There’s Pliny the Elder actually on tap, along with Chau Tien, a refreshing, mildly hoppy Vietnamese pale ale made in the Anderson Valley by Tuan Nguyen. Best yet, the beers on tap come in a regular tall .30L glass or a petite .15L one that’s ideal for people like me who often find drinking a full-sized beer way too filling.
Or opt for a bottle of non-alcoholic Turmeric Radiance ($5), a none-too-sweet blend of turmeric, ginger, orange peel, lemon grass, cardamom, cloves, and vanilla.
The noodle soups come in two sizes. The grilled items can be enjoyed either with rice, vermicelli or greens.
The signature noodle soup hails from the southern region of Vietnam. It’s actually a Cambodian dish, Le Ziblatt explains, that the Vietnamese adopted. The Nam Noodle Soup ($13, $16) is brimming with slices of pork, prawns, a crab claw, garlic chives and pork lardons, as well as a shrimp-egg omelet floating on top. The base, a mix of pork and chicken broth, cooked for 5 hours each day, is light with a real purity of flavor.
The same is true for pho ga or chicken rice noodles ($13, $16). It’s rare to find chicken pho as opposed to beef, and even rarer still to find one with a broth this clean-tasting and restorative. So much so that I didn’t even want to add any of the other usual condiments to it so that I could just enjoy it all on its own. The bowl is chock-full of pieces of tender Mary’s organic chicken, and a flurry of Thai basil and cilantro leaves. This is the type of chicken soup you crave when you’re ailing.
We opted for rice with the grilled beef onion rolls ($15) that get wrapped around slivers of onions. The beef rolls, which are a staple at Vung Tau, are garlicky and slightly sweet, making them irresistible.
Side dishes come two pieces to an order so that a couple can share or a lone diner can enjoy without any leftovers. The Imperial Rolls ($4) arrive right out of the fryer, hot, crisp and stuffed with pork, shrimp, wood ear mushrooms and glass noodles. Wrap a roll in a lettuce leaf and dunk in the sweet-tangy fish sauce to enjoy.
The steamed pork-shrimp dumplings ($3) arrive on a pool of sweet chili-soy sauce. They are plenty meaty, with a dense filling like a meatball inside.
There are only two dessert options, both ice cream ones made elsewhere. We couldn’t resist trying the Bomb Pop ($4), especially after we heard that Le Ziblatt grew up eating them from the neighborhood ice cream truck and has such a soft spot for them that she spent six weeks tracking them down in Iowa just to stock them at Nam.
The Bomb Pop is like a big fudgsicle with the addition of creamy layers of banana — which hits the spot after a big bowl of hot, brothy noodles.
It was daunting to open her own restaurant, Le Ziblatt admits. It’s an endeavor she’s been thinking about for years. And now, she couldn’t be happier that it’s finally come to fruition. From the likes of the busy dining room last week, just days after it had opened, a lot of hungry diners feel the same way.