Pity small, local chain Jenni's Noodle House. On February 1, a car crashed into the beer shop adjacent to its South Shepherd location. Days later, Nam Eatery opened just steps away from the Jenni's on E. 20th Street. And with a menu of from-scratch Viet classics, Nam is serving up some serious competition.
The bright, clean space is decorated with black-and-white murals of Vietnamese would-be immigrants climbing onto boats, as well as a hand-painted map of Southeast Asia. Diners order at a counter that's stocked with fruit tossed with chiles as well as plastic cups of homemade yogurt. The latter is exceptionally light and smooth, with the telltale sizzle of effervescence—the result of fermenting with the added sugar of condensed milk as well as natural lactose—unique to Vietnamese yogurt, or da ua.
Besides fruit and yogurt, Nam's focus on healthier foods extends to a roster of drinks including lemongrass tea and self-serve lime water, as well as richer offerings such as sugary ca phe. I split the difference with a not-too-sweet limeade served with a wide straw to allow me to sip every passion fruit seed as if they were all-natural boba.
The helpful counter server told me that the crisp-jacketed pan-fried dumplings are Nam's most popular appetizer and it's easy to see why. $4 for six generously sized dumplings is a heck of a deal, and these scallion-speckled specimens, served with a lightly spicy soy-based dipping sauce, are worth every penny—and many more.
The counter server wasn't able to do much to help me whittle down my list of entrée possibilities. There are lots of apparent pluses to each: The banh mi include butter, pâté and pickles all made from scratch in Nam's kitchen. Diners who order pho gather their own lime, cilantro and basil, among other fixings, from a cooler stocked just for that purpose. But whenever I try a new Vietnamese spot, my barometer is the bún thịt nướng, or vermicelli with pork.
It began with a disappointment: The accompanying egg roll, though full of pork, carrots and mushrooms, was woefully undercooked and far too soft. But things improved from there. The thin, fatty slices of pork tasted of char and smoke. The pickled, waffle-cut carrots, daikon and cabbage burst with acid. The nước chấm was uncommonly fish sauce funky, but had too little vinegar. I ended up adding some of the dumplings' dipping sauce to the bowl for more of a tang and a little more heat. But once I did, it was hard to stop scooping the skinny rice noodles into my mouth. I eventually succeeded, with half the dish left for another day, but there will certainly be other meals to come when I'll sample the rest of what Nam has to offer.