Thanh Tam II has been at 577 Valencia St. for 11 years, but usually gets overlooked by those who were frequenters of the now-shuttered, dual-entranced Sunflower across the street. We’d always gone to Sunflower ourselves, toying with the idea of trying out Thanh Tam, but never making the leap. We were quite pleased we finally did. Sandwiched in between a trendy new-ish taqueria and a sleek, hipster furniture store, tiny Thanh Tam looks like your typical hole-in-the-wall on the outside, but the interior is surprisingly quite nice.
I asked our server about the restaurant’s name, if there had been a Thanh Tam I, and there had, but his only response was “It’s gone!” I also asked if he was the owner, and he said no, pointing to a lady on the other side of the pass-through counter in front of the open kitchen. “That’s my boss.” “And she cooks too?” I asked? “Yes, very good!” This isn’t haute cuisine; the food here is standard Vietnamese fare, with quite a large menu, and also some Chinese selections. However, I found that some of their dishes held up to many I’ve had in other restaurants in the Bay Area, and even in Orange County’s famous Little Saigon in So. Cal. – home of the first and largest Vietnamese community in the country.
We ordered a lot of food, our first time here. I ordered two dishes that are my test of a good Vietnamese restaurant – banh xeo and bo luc lac. Banh xeo, also known as a Vietnamese pancake, is a gorgeous, yellow, rice flower omelet, filled with bean sprouts, slices of roasted pork, and shrimp. The omelet itself should be super crispy, while the inside retains a bit of creaminess. Be warned: it’s a very messy dish to eat. You cut the omelet into pieces and scoop up the crackly shell and slippery innards with the lettuce leaves provided, garnish lavishly with the forest of mint and/or basil, cilantro, pickled carrots, cucumbers, daikon, and sometimes jalapeno on your plate, and then roll it up into what is hopefully a bite-sized morsel. The little package then gets dipped into a bowl of nuoc cham – a traditional flavoring dip made of fish sauce, lemon or lime juice, sugar, julienned carrots/daikon, and sometimes chiles or garlic – and the whole mess goes into your mouth, juices dripping down your chin and arm. So worth it! The combination of the crunchy omelet with the tender pork and shrimp, the fresh sprouts, herbs and veggies, and the pungent/tart nuoc cham, creates an explosion of flavors in your mouth. The portion is huge, too, and could easily serve as one person’s main (and only) course. Thanh Tam’s version was delightful, hitting all the right notes. I’d go back for this dish alone.
Bo luc lac is a steak dish, also known as “shaking beef”, meaning literally “beef jumping around” to describe the way the beef should be tossed in the wok when cooking. It’s often filet mignon chunks, though I’ve also had it made with rib eye and sirloin, that have been marinated in fish sauce, sugar, garlic, soy, and rice vinegar, making for a very deeply flavorful meat. It is often served on watercress so that the juices make a dressing for the greens, in combination with a very flavorful lemon pepper sauce served alongside for dipping the meat. It can also be garnished with tomatoes or pickled red onions. In this case, the beef came on a bed of cilantro, sautéed onions and red & green bell peppers. It sometimes comes with a bowl of white rice, but I prefer it as a salad. Once again, Thanh Tam’s version surpassed in flavor a few others I’ve tried, even though I’m not a fan of bell peppers. The meat was tender and chewy, with a great beefiness.
The BF ordered fried won tons, which looked almost like little empanadas in texture, and were filled with ground pork and spices, with a sweet/salty dipping sauce alongside. Tasty, and served to fill us both up. I’d probably not get them again just for that reason.
The BF’s own test of a Vietnamese place, Bun thit cha gio (strips of grilled marinated pork shoulder over room temperature vermicelli rice noodles, sauced with nuoc cham, with crispy fried imperial rolls atop) is at its best when the pork is grilled until it is deeply browned and the marinade is caramelized, and the little fatty bits just beg to be devoured. As for the rolls – well, imperial rolls are, for me, the royalty of all such fried rolls. Rice paper encases ground pork, minced shrimp, cellophane noodles, mushrooms, and the rolls get deep fried until crispy. They’re surprisingly light, and addictive. Here again, in this one giant bowl, garnished with pickled carrots, daikon and roasted chopped peanuts, there can be such a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures – a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine. Unfortunately, Thanh Tam’s was one of the least favorite versions we’ve had. The pork mixture in the rolls was just not very flavorful, and, sadly neither was the grilled pork on the vermicelli. We were quite disappointed, as there are a lot of dishes on the menu that feature grilled pork, and we’re huge fans.
Not ones to give up easily, however, we came back the following week. This time, to start, the BF ordered the standard fresh spring rolls- those ubiquitously pretty rice paper rolls filled with crunchy lettuce, strips of roast pork (there’s a vegetarian version too), mint, halved shrimp, and rice noodles, all to be dipped in a peanut sauce. It’s a fresh tasting snack, and I thought Thanh Tam’s were perfectly fine, although the BF didn’t love them.
For his main, the BF decided to try a pork chop this time, to see if the cut of pork would make a difference in the marinade they used. Smart, and it was a good bet. His dish of pork chops over steamed rice with two beautifully fried eggs was spectacular! This time the meat had flavor galore, and the proper chewy/tenderness we love in grilled pork. Renewed our faith in Thanh Tam’s way with pork. As for me, I’ll eat anything with an egg on it, so I’d be hard pressed to decide what to have next time…
… because my own meal was pretty wonderful too. I decided to start with a banh mi – most of all because I’d never been in a Vietnamese restaurant that also made these oh-so-popular sandwiches; they’re usually sold at banh mi shops, and not often found where there is a more extensive menu. I wanted to see if they could do it justice. There are such a variety of banh mi to be had. My favorite, of course, is always the grilled pork, but a tad gun shy, I went with the beef this time. Banh mi come on wonderful French rolls – the best are made with a combination of rice and wheat flours for a perfectly crisp, airy bread. The fillings can be any combination of protein – pork, chicken, beef, tofu, pork meatballs, fish cake, shrimp, fried eggs, pâté, etc. – but almost always come with cilantro, mint/basil, carrots, daikon, and usually, hopefully, a thin slather of mayonnaise. They are, again, a wonderful conglomeration of flavors and textures vying for space on your tongue. And they’re usually quite cheap. Thanh Tam’s banh mi was excellent, and I’m going to make it my new go-to. The beef was sweet/salty, and tender, with nice charred bits, and everything inside tasted fresh and lovely. I saved half of it to go home (as I still had my main coming), and hours later, it still held up.
For my main, I ordered the beef combo pho. Pho is one of those polarizing dishes; it’s become so popular in the U.S. (again, first landing here via Little Saigon, Orange County, with the wave of Vietnamese refugees in the 70s) in the last 35+ years that everyone has their favorite, and their favorite restaurant that serves it. I’m not going to say Thanh Tam made my favorite bowl; truth be told, I’m not the biggest pho aficionado (there’s just too many amazing choices in this cuisine!) It’s not because the soup isn’t good, because as soups go, it’s pretty magical. It is street food at its finest in Vietnam, and its heady broth, redolent of star anise, coriander, clove, fennel, cinnamon, just feels like it could be the final cure for the common cold. Or a heartache. Pho, like the banh mi, comes in unending combinations: chicken; raw beef flank slices, cut ultra-thin, usually served on the side, so that you can determine the doneness of the meat by how long you choose to leave it in the broth (I like mine rare); beef meatballs; flank; fatty brisket; tendon; and tripe: get one or all! The toppings are what you’d expect: lime, thai basil, scallions, sprouts, jalapenos, etc., and the broth can be further flavored with hoisin, sriracha, and/or fish sauce. The noodles can vary too.
For me, Thanh Tam’s broth was just a tad light on flavor; it was delicious when doctored up with all the accoutrements, of course, and I really had no complaints at that point. Except, they forgot to serve my meat on the side, so it cooked a little more than I would have liked. And, there wasn’t that much meat in relation to the noodles. Of course, I was so full by that time I couldn’t have eaten more meat, and we ended up taking most of the broth and noodles home. But if you’re looking for a very meaty pho, perhaps this isn’t the place to get it. Still, it’s a homey, comforting dish, and I wouldn’t say I’d never have here it again.
Even though there were a couple of misses at Thanh Tam, the hits were big, and we’ll definitely go back. Love to see a little neighborhood place like this keep chugging along.
Thanh Tam II
577 Valencia St.
Open 11 to 10 p.m. Daily