You can’t beat the pho at NamNam Café

[Ed. note: This review was written before the state-ordered closure of restaurants. NamNam says it is offering carryout orders and can be reached through Postmates and DoorDash.]

It’s easy to overlook NamNam Café. It’s tiny, and it’s off on a St. Matthews side street.

But you really shouldn’t miss it. It’s one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants, even among a dozen strong competitors. I’d drop in even more often if I didn’t have so many other places to go. When I recently noticed, though, that its menu now boasts organic chicken, grass-fed local beef and cage-free eggs, I knew it was time to return.

Decor in the two small rooms is simple but homey. The smaller front room is dominated by a large, charming street-art mural depicting two Vietnamese women watching a fierce dragon rising out of a mountain lake. The addition to the left (watch out — it’s down a small step) is tightly filled with red booths and surrounded by thatched wall hangings and a pale-green scrim that softens the view of the parking lot.

NamNam owner-chef Dave Truong’s menu thoughtfully covers the Vietnamese culinary scene, with clear, brief English-language descriptions. Starters include five appetizer rolls, both crispy, fried (Imperial roll, $4) and rice-paper-wrapped rolls (priced from $5.50 for the all-veggie Buddha roll to $8.75 for a beef summer roll).

Salads range from $6 (with organic grilled pork or chicken) to $9.50 (with grilled shrimp). Four varieties of pho are from $10.50 (for pho ga chicken noodle or pho chay vegetarian) to $12 (for beef noodle pho with a combination of medium-rare, grass-fed beef tenderloin, brisket and Vietnamese meatballs).

The bill of fare spans 15 entrées, many of them offering a choice of beef, shrimp, chicken, pork, tofu or grilled shrimp. There are noodle bowls, curries, Vietnamese crepes, fried rice, banh mi sandwiches, stir-fries, clay-pot dishes and even Vietnamese-Mexican fusion tacos! Entrées range from $7.50 (for a vegetarian taco) to $17 (for bo luc lac, the French-Vietnamese dish called shaking beef). All selections are clearly marked to denote vegetarian, gluten-free and spicy dishes.

We noshed through two meals and didn’t encounter a single disappointment. Vietnamese iced coffee ($3.75) comes pre-made rather than in the traditional small drip pot at your table, but the tall glass of strong, chicory coffee blended with sweet condensed milk poured over ice was still an appetizing way to get a caffeine shot.

The rice paper surrounding NamNam rolls ($8 for a pair) seemed a bit rubbery and hard to bite through, but the effort was rewarded with bits of sausage-like pork patty wrapped in crisp romaine, julienned carrots and cucumber and cold rice noodles, with thick, hoisin-peanut butter sauce alongside.

The veggie-packed Buddha roll ($5.50 for a pair) contained similar ingredients, plus cilantro and bean sprouts, with rectangles of pressed, fried tofu standing in for the pork.

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A pair of Vietnamese-accented tacos ($7.50) were filled with a veggie mix similar to that used in the rolls, topped with fried tofu, drizzled with fiery Sriracha aioli and finished with thick slices of raw jalapeño and a mound of fresh cilantro. Tacos may also be topped with beef, chicken or pork for a modest upcharge.

NamNam elevates the iconic Vietnamese shaking beef ($17) with local filet mignon from Stone Cross Farm. Tender but rich and beefy, a good 6 ounces of meat was grilled with dark charred edges and drizzled with a light sesame-soy dressing. Excellent steamed white rice and a simple field lettuces salad came alongside.

NamNam’s signature dish, Saigon noodles ($11.50 with tofu), are thin rice noodles, added to with spicy yellow curry; crisp, sliced nappa cabbage; carrots; scallions; and bean sprouts, with fresh cilantro on top. It comes with your choice of organic chicken, grass-fed beef or tofu and can’t be ordered with less than the medium heat that Southeast Asian curry paste imparts.

Two phos were both well-made and delicious, with deeply flavored, long-simmered broths. The savory, consoling beef noodle pho ($10.75) ranked among the best phos I’ve eaten. A full bowl of clear, beefy, aromatic broth contained a large scoop of perfectly cooked rice vermicelli, topped with scallions and about 10, thin slices of tender and flavorful well-done brisket. Traditional pho accompaniments — lime wedges, raw jalapeno slices, Thai basil and raw bean sprouts — were served alongside.

Vegetarian pho ($10.50) was similar to the beef but with glass-clear, deeply-savory veggie broth loaded with noodles, a garden of veggies and a generous portion of firm tofu cubes.

Our first lunch was $53.11 (boosted a bit by the top-priced shaking beef) plus an $8.85 tip. My sister joined us for another midday visit, when we held the toll for three to $57.51 — including two $7 quarts of delicious chicken broth to go — plus a 20% tip.

NamNam Café

318 Wallace Ave.
891-8859
namnamcafe.com

Noise level: The sound level varied a bit depending on the crowd during our two visits, but conversation was never difficult. The average sound was around 75 decibels, within the normal conversational range.

Accessibility: The main section is accessible to wheelchair users, but a step down makes access to the side room problematic. The tiny, unisex restroom is back a narrow hall that also appears difficult to negotiate in a wheelchair.

About the Author

Storyteller and seeker. Writer, editor, recovering metro journalist; playwright, poet, once a classical DJ. Hard-core food-and-drink geek, serious home cook. Seminary grad, part-time Episcopal preacher. Did I say eclectic? Deeply rooted Louisville native who’s lived in NYC, LA and the Bay Area; political junkie and unapologetic leftie. Covering the Louisville dining scene in print media since the 1980s, and doing it online since 1994.

@RobinGarr

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