January 31, 2023

Best Vietnamese, Mexican restaurants in south Sacramento

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The bánh mì chảo at Saigon Oi is spiced red pâté, filet mignon chunks, poached eggs, a meatball and grape tomatoes swimming in a skillet amid a super-savory sauce, with an airy baguette on the side to dip scoop up excess juice.

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Savvy eaters know that the brightest lights and glitziest buildings don’t always yield the tastiest food. In Sacramento, that often means heading south.

These five restaurants don’t represent merely the best of south Sacramento. They’re among The Sacramento Bee’s Top 50 Restaurants anywhere in the region, from Yolo to El Dorado counties.

Four of the five are Vietnamese restaurants on Stockton Boulevard, Little Saigon’s unofficial Main Street. The outlier is a beloved taqueria that makes a point of sourcing lesser-seen Mexican ingredients.

Think another south Sacramento restaurant should have made the Top 50? Nominate them through this form. We’ll add the five highest vote-getters from across the region to the Top 50 guide in December.

CƠM TẤM THIÊN HƯƠNG

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A broken rice plate from Com Tam Thien Huong sits on a table in Sacramento on Sunday Feb. 21, 2021. Daniel Kim [email protected]

$ — SOUTH/SOUTHEAST ASIAN

Cơm tấm translates to “broken rice,” an inexpensive dish from Saigon composed of fragmented grains surrounded by protein and veggies. It’s the cornerstone of Hoanganh Nguyen’s restaurant in a bustling South Sacramento shopping center, and best experienced by ordering the works, known as dac biet. Mouthwatering barbecued pork, crispy shrimp cake and an egg cake stuffed with glass noodles and chicken draw the eater in, while a ruby red, candy-like Chinese sausage and flattened shrimp wrapped around a sugar cane kind of work as sweet-savory desserts. The well-spiced phở is also solid, but in this case, the dac biet is the attraction you don’t want to miss.

6835 Stockton Blvd., Suite 430, Sacramento. (916) 476-4258.

LALO’S RESTAURANT

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Owner and cook Cecilia Tinoco prepares on Wednesday, April 15, 2009, one of her specialities, molcajetes, made with chorizo, beef, chicken, Oaxaca cheese, cactus and onion. Tinoco cooks and serves lunch at Lalo’s mexican food restaurant on 24th Street between Sutterville Road and Fruitridge Avenue. Randy Pench [email protected]

$ — MEXICAN

When Southern California transplants inevitably complain about Sacramento’s Mexican food, you send them to Lalo’s. The secret is out, but the truth remains: Lalo’s deserves to be on everyone’s shortlist of Sacramento’s best taquerias, just as it has since opening 18 years ago. Cecelia Tinoco’s humble, homey orange joint in Hollywood Park nails classics like fatty cabeza tacos in a smoky red salsa, and thrives thanks to its sneaky depth. You’d be hard-pressed to find a deeper roster of agua frescas or quesadillas; fill the latter with the jet-black corn fungus huitlacoche or flores de calabaza (squash blossoms) if they’re in season. Juicy barbacoa platters are worth seeking out, too, if you can stand the weekend lines.

5063 24th St., Sacramento. (916) 736-2389.

PHỞ XE LUA

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A bowl of takeout pho from Pho Xe Lua served at home on Monday, March 8, 2021. Daniel Kim Sacramento Bee file

$ — SOUTH/SOUTHEAST ASIAN

South Sacramento’s Little Saigon neighborhood is the best place for Vietnamese food around here, and Phở Xe Lua stands out amid a sea of worthy Stockton Boulevard competitors. Veteran chef/co-owner Bobby Phong aces the noodle-packed soups on which Phở Xe Lua stakes its reputation. Phong’s bánh xèo, or Vietnamese crepes, are among the best in town, perfectly crispy with a heavy inflection of coconut and pork/shrimp/bean sprout filling. Dozens of Chinese dishes add heft to the menu, but one should hone in on rustic Vietnamese classics like cá bông lau kho tộ, a fatty, tender catfish clay pot dish still bubbling in its sweet-salty sauce. Usually reserved for home cooking, it’s a treat to find out in the wild.

5331 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento. (916) 451-8838.

QUÁN NEM NINH HÒA

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Plates from Quan Nem Ninh Hoa on Sunday Feb. 21, 2021. Daniel Kim [email protected]

$ — SOUTH/SOUTHEAST ASIAN

Dozens of quality pho houses and banh mi shops surround Quán Nem Ninh Hòa in Little Saigon, but you won’t find either Vietnamese staple inside. The Nguyen family’s two area Vietnamese restaurants (and a third in West Covina) are best known for DIY spring rolls, rice paper cocoons stuffed to the diner’s content with skewered ground pork, đồ chua (pickled daikon and carrots), greens and a red peanut house sauce. Noodle soup lovers can still get items like bún chả cá, an umami-rich yellowtail fishcake stew with pineapple and tomato chunks, as early as 9 a.m.

6450 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento. (916) 428-3748.

8469 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove. (916) 683-9621.

SAIGON OI

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The bánh mì chảo at Saigon Oi is spiced red pâté, filet mignon chunks, poached eggs, a meatball and grape tomatoes swimming in a skillet amid a super-savory sauce, with an airy baguette on the side to dip scoop up excess juice. Benjy Egel [email protected]

$$ — SOUTH/SOUTHEAST ASIAN

Don’t be thrown off by the Instagrammable entryway or gold silverware at the hottest restaurant to open in Little Saigon in 2022. Saigon Oi is all about cravings, comfort foods from across Vietnam that don’t always find their way to Sacramento restaurant menus. It’s a great spot for tiny coconut flour pancakes called bánh khọt, which come topped with shrimp and should be devoured with the accompanying lettuce, mint and basil. The bánh mì chảo is essential ordering: spiced red pâté, filet mignon chunks, poached eggs, a meatball and grape tomatoes swim in a skillet amid a super-savory sauce, with an airy baguette on the side to dip scoop up excess juices.

6835 Stockton Blvd., Suite 450, Sacramento. (916) 594-7757.

This story was originally published November 26, 2022 9:00 AM.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.