Growing up in Hong Kong, my exposure to Vietnamese food is largely HK style: lemongrass pork chops (yum!), the ubiquitous rice paper spring roll, and yes pho as well.
But foodie friends in LA have introduced me to a whole new collection of amazing dishes - and the best of my recent favs are from Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa in Rosemead.From the moment we set foot in the place I felt I would love it. I always appreciate it when a restaurant takes care to create a nice environment, in addition to turning out good food. The dining room was airy, sunlit and soothing with a sage color scheme, and rustic dark wood tables and chairs. And we were seated in minutes - good start to service.
They had a bilingual menu, but since my friend 'Designer' had been there before, she served as food guide. We kicked off the meal with Dac Biet Banh Beo Chen ($5.99) - a giant plate with a dozen tiny single serve dishes of steamed rice cake. Topped with ground up dried shrimp, chives and some sort of crouton. With a bowl of fish sauce for flavor. I've had this at one other place, Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa, before and didn't see what all the hype was about. But at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, it was love at first bite. The rice cake tasted fresh made - amazingly smooth, light and so soft it came away with the smallest flick with your plastic spoon. And I loved that it was perfectly counterbalanced with all the toppings for textural contrast. The fish sauce was a skillfully controlled blend of savory, sweet and tart. Everything worked perfectly together. Once we had our first bite basically all you then heard and saw from us were rounds of quickly emptied, spotless dishes flying from mouth to table.
Then there was the awesome lunch special for two, which was not only a great deal but lots of DIY fun: Dac Biet Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa ($15.99) which included Nem Nuong (charbroiled pork meatball skewers), Nem Cap (charbroiled pork patties wrapped in banana leaf), Nem Char Nuong (charbroiled sour pork patties), and Cha Ram Tom (shrimp egg rolls).
Basically you get all the ingredients you need to make your own pork rolls! Starting with a plate of the charbroiled meats and shrimp rolls...
...a plate of Banh Trang va Rau Song rice paper, a bowl of hot water, and a bowl of bright orange nuoc cham sauce for dipping (I think it's made with shrimp, fish sauce, lime juice, chili peppers, crab paste)...
Then comes the fun part for two ladies who like to think of themselves as crafty. You dip the rice paper disks (which are hard like chips to start with) in the hot water to soften it, then lay it out on your plate like a tortilla, ready to stuff with other ingredients on the table.
Take a piece of pork meatball of your choice from the plate, then a fried shrimp roll, then whatever veggies and herbs you like. (Remember though if you pick the ones wrapped in banana leaves, to remove those first, they're not edible!) Then just pull up the sides of the rice paper and roll - and you're ready to dip in the nuoc cham sauce and eat!
As you can see - I need a lot more practice with the rolling. But it was fun to get the hands-on DIY experience / play with our food. And the rolls were tasty and amazing. Light, but very filling as well - and the pork meatballs had an amazing, rich, juicy, sweet and porcine flavor that made us food-drunk when paired with that beautiful smokey char. I was addicted and couldn't get enough - the take home rolls also still held up very nicely the next day.
All in all, we had a blast, enjoying a fun, budget friendly and delicious lunch. The nem nuong lunch special was an awesome deal at $15.99 for two people (I think we made about a dozen rolls and took some home), and the banh beo was fantastic as well. I still dream of both and can't wait to go back for a second pig fest.
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100%
Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa
9016 Mission Drive Rosemead, CA 91770
Parking: Free lot attached to restaurant