Coriander Vietnamese Restaurant
1899 Alhambra Boulevard • Sacramento
When an insatiable craving for Vietnamese cuisine strikes, many turn to Stockton Boulevard with its dozens of restaurants serving hearty bowls of pho, savory spring rolls and enough bánh mì to fill the bellies of any hungry customer with a taste for Southeast Asian flavors. Now, those who seek to broaden their palates with traditional herbs and spices should look no further than Midtown for their next fix of bánh bèo.
Coriander Vietnamese Restaurant (1899 Alhambra Boulevard) opened its doors across from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op in April with a simple mission: to introduce customary Vietnamese flavors to the state Capital. The eatery’s simple, one-page fixed menu focuses on a handful of familiar dishes in addition to its homemade touches like its noodles, which are prepared fresh daily.
Still, with a selection of restaurants serving up Vietnamese staples like beef or chicken pho, or any variation of spring rolls packaged in clear, chewy rice paper, co-owner of Coriander Kristi Ng felt a variety of Sacramento eateries lacked fresh ingredients, overall cleanliness and the true flavor profiles her culture embodies.
“Ninety percent of the dishes on the menu were made within our family. My favorite is the Bún bò Hu, which is the spicy beef noodle soup,” Ng says. “Hue is the city in central Vietnam, that’s where we’re from. It’s got a spicier flavor to it than other dishes. It’s packed with lemongrass flavor, which is very healthy, ginger and a bunch of herbs and dry and fresh spices.”
Ng co-owns Coriander with her husband Kevin. She wanted to open the restaurant in honor of her cultural heritage, but more so to pay homage to her mother Gai, who passed away 11 years ago. An 80-inch oil painting Ng custom-ordered from Vietnam hangs near the back of the restaurant. The image shows her mother on a beach, watching over customers who dine within her daughter’s eatery.
“To be honest, growing up I didn’t appreciate the food she made for us. As a kid, you tend to take it for granted,” Ng admits. “As I grew older and went to college, I missed my mom’s food. Through the years of traveling and trying to find my culture and identity I really wanted to do something to pay tribute to my culture and the food growing up.”
FLAVORS OF VIETNAM
Whether in a spoonful of spicy broth or the textures of thinly sliced meats, Vietnamese dishes are peppered with essential herbs, spices and often times, roots. Ng shares the key components found in many dishes on Coriander’s menu.
“Lemongrass, ginger [and] we also use a lot of coriander,” she happily explains. Ng adds that the spice found in many entrées is credited to Thai chilies and habanero peppers. She often grows Vietnamese dragon peppers at home and uses them in personal meals, but says they’re not only seasonal, but highly spicy and not for customers with a sensitivity to heat. Looking for a palatable kick to clear the sinuses? Ng recommends the coriander fried rice: wok-fried jasmine rice, sausage, bacon, spam, seasonal veggies, garlic and habanero; priced at $8.50.
Coriander’s menu features a variety of meat-friendly dishes, but the cooks haven’t forgotten about Midtown’s vegans and vegetarians. Leaf eaters, look to the jackfruit lotus vegetarian salad found in the appetizers section: fried tofu slices, young jackfruit, lotus roots, banana blossom, onions and fresh herbs tossed in a tamarind sauce topped with peanuts; priced at $7.50. This colorful dish, earthy in flavor, is served between two wavy rice crackers speckled with black sesame seeds. Break off a piece of cracker and use it as the vessel to give this savory salad a try.
“With the ripe jack fruit, we would eat or would make smoothies out of it. The young jackfruit, in our culture, we do a lot of salads or stir-fries. With banana blossoms or lotus roots, too we do a lot of salads. Our salads are different from American salads, where you have a bunch of greens and a dressing,” Ng explains.
Another unique item on Coriander’s home-inspired menu is its chrysanthemum-jasmine iced tea, only $2.50. The floral beverage is refreshing and perfect for cooling off the palate between bites.
“I grew up drinking a lot of oolong tea as a family. So, I combined a little bit of ginger with jasmine and chrysanthemum flowers for this tea and my kids, love it,” Ng says.
Besides Ng, there are only two people at Coriander who know the recipe to the handmade noodles featured in the restaurant’s seafood banh canh: Ng’s husband Kevin and aunt Linh Nguyen, her mother’s youngest sister.
Soft handmade noodles, fresh crab, shrimp and fish cake culminate in a hearty seafood broth priced at $11.50. The peppery broth wraps the body in a warm, savory blanket and is topped with a bright-green hill of fresh coriander. The noodles, chewy in texture, radiate with the flavors of each seafood component.
“The noodles are a combination of rice and tapioca flour. In central Vietnam, tapioca flour is more commonly used. It’s more like a gummy bear texture, so it’s chewier,” Ng explains. “If I were to make that dish at home, it would be a lot chewier in texture, but because of the area we’re at in Midtown, we made it a little bit softer with half tapioca and half rice flour. At home, we would use 60 to 70 percent tapioca flour.”
In other cuisines, it’s easy to pack on the calories with fried options dipped with sweet sauces, or even fill up on carbs and starches only to leave the tummy in hunger pangs an hour later. With Vietnamese fare, Ng says it’s a well-balanced meal and a more health-conscious choice that incorporates the right amount of carbs, meats and vegetables.
“We pride ourselves with the ingredients we use and the way we cook them,” Ng says of Coriander’s menu. “There’s a lot of love that goes into each dish and it pretty much speaks to the basics of Vietnamese food. When you put it all together it’s just very healthy, yet very savory and delicious. It’s actually a pleasure and you feel good eating it because it’s light. That’s the key to Vietnamese food.”