Nam opened in August in Santa Ana. The cute new Vietnamese cafe across the street from Santa Ana College brings a refreshing, independent spirit to a shopping center dominated by the likes of Subway, Taco Bell and Carl’s Jr.
Nam seats only about 30 diners, so at lunchtime it’s not unusual to encounter a short wait for a table. Despite the crush, the young staff couldn’t possibly be more friendly and excited to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to those who maybe haven’t tried it before. The kid behind the counter on one of my visits is so eager to explain the menu that I can’t get a word in edgewise as he rattles off his enthusiastic recommendations, which humorously ends up including just about everything on the menu explained in detail.
Fortunately, the menu is fairly short, a greatest-hits compilation of spring rolls, banh mi and pho, plus noodle bowls and rice bowls.
The nem nuong cuon, those classic spring rolls stuffed with pork patties, are delicious. They aren’t quite as extraordinary as the ones at Brodard in Little Saigon. But then again, nobody’s are. And no doubt some people will miss the distinctive crunch of fried wonton that Brodard and others stuff inside this sort of roll, but the quality of the pork patties at the core of these is just as good.
The broth at the heart of the pho is a richly fragrant, crystal-clear consommé that frames its star ingredients beautifully. The rare beef that goes into the soup is Wagyu from Darling Downs, a respected Australian beef company that supplies many of the better shabu-shabu houses and Korean barbecue places, where meat really matters.
The banh mi sandwiches are stuffed generously with charred pork and plenty of jalapeños. And they’re made with high-quality French baguettes that make me wonder why anyone would still go to Subway next door when they could just as easily be eating one of these.
Where: 1702 N. Bristol, Santa Ana
When: Lunch and dinner daily
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.