Until recently, the height of dining out in the north San Gabriel Valley was the pupu platter at Bahooka or a solid schnitzel dinner at Bruckmeier's Bavarian Inn. Theme dining still thrives at these neighborhood favorites, but much plainer restaurants, with reputations built on a culinary specialty, have been popping up like Starbucks.
One of the most popular, Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, sits behind an In-N-Out Burger near the corner of Rosemead Boulevard and Mission Drive in Rosemead. The house specialty, nem nuong , is more or less the hamburger of Vietnam: grilled pork meatballs infused with garlic, lightly flecked with black pepper and permeated with the scent of smoke. Though Central Vietnam--especially the town of Ninh Hoa--is synonymous with the meatballs, they're sold throughout the country, in kerosene-lit roadside stands, hole-in-the-wall urban grilleries and outdoor markets, where the smoke draws crowds of diners like a magnet.
As befits a specialty house, Nem Nuong's menu lists just nine items (excluding drinks and sweets), available in various combinations. You won't find pho soup, seafood or curries here, but the restaurant is always thronged with customers ordering nem nuong or nem bo nuong , the beef version of the meatballs. Another house specialty, minced "shrimp cake" wrapped in a paper-thin tofu sheet and deep-fried, is like a seafood pate in filo pastry. Frying turns the tofu to brittle shards, providing a stunning meld of crackly then yielding textures. This dish and beo chen --silver-dollar-size rice pancakes topped with minced chives and shrimp--show off Central Vietnam's often intricate and sophisticated cuisine.
The shrimp cake comes on its own or on various combination plates. The one that gives the most flavor variety is No. 20, where it accompanies grilled strips of lemon-grass-marinated beef and several cigarette-thin fried shrimp egg rolls.
A good way to try the house specialties is dac biet . At $11.99 for two, this extravagant combination has to be one of the city's best deals. It includes a large heap of the crispy shrimp rolls, an enormous serving of nem nuong and smaller servings of two other meats, nem cab and nem chua nuong .
Nem cab , the most delicately seasoned of the three, is pork wrapped in tiny banana leaf packets half the size of a playing card. Smoke from the grill filters through the leaves depositing a musky herbaceous flavor on the meat. Nem chua nuong , which the menu describes as "sour pork patties," is not truly sour but does have a complex, cured-meat flavor. It's said he-men prefer this sausage raw with alcoholic beverages. It's a close relative of nem , the glowing pink northern Thai sausage you may have seen in Thai delis.
All this comes with a platter of herbs and vegetables, a dipping sauce and a stack of floppy rice papers. The fun of eating Vietnamese barbecue is digging in and wrapping meat chunks, fresh herbs and maybe a bit of cucumber into burrito-style packets to eat out of hand. Or you can rip off patches of banh hoi , a fluffy web-like pancake of ultra-fine angel hair noodles, and use them to pick up pieces of meat then pop the whole thing into your mouth--a method slightly less messy than the burrito wrap. If you aren't in the mood to make any sort of wrap, you can get any meat on rice or rice vermicelli and mix everything together. However you order, you can add a blast of heat with a whole fresh chile or garlic clove from the bowls on the table. Or add another flavor layer with the bright orange "house special" dipping sauce. This sweet-salty concoction of ground shrimp with roasted rice seems like an Americanization of the smellier, fishier sauces you'd find in Little Saigon.
Though Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa has a genuine tradition, it's not inconceivable that if someone were to redecorate the room as a replica of a nem nuong stand in Hue--or maybe bring in a few tiki idols--it could take its place among the neighborhood's monuments to theme dining.
* Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, 9016 Mission Drive, Rosemead. (626) 286-3370. Open Thursdays to Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Lot parking. No alcohol. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only $8 to $19.
* What to Get: dac biet, charbroiled lemon grass beef and shrimp cake with crispy bean curd ( No. 20), banh beo chen, broiled pork balls and shrimp cake in crispy bean curd on vermicelli (No.19).