One of the principles of dining out - the cheaper the meal, the faster you're entitled to eat it - breaks down when it comes to pho. Which leaves me wondering: If the United States really is a fast-food nation, why is pho becoming so popular?
This thought nagged at me last night as I spooned my way through a bowl of pho in an unlikely location - midtown Sacramento. Until Tamarind opened at 25th and J a week or so ago, pho pretty much was limited to Vietnamese restaurants along Broadway and Stockton Boulevard. Its presence along increasingly fashionable J Street must mean something, like pho is going mainstream.
As at other cafes specializing in the dish, aromatic and bracing pho at Tamarind is a great buy, with bowls about as big as hottubs selling for around $6. As the saying goes, they are meals in themselves. They aren't, however, intended to be eaten fast. The broth, customarily made with beef bones that have been long simmered with roasted ginger, onion, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, invites study, as well as cautious eating, given its heat. The mixed meats in the broth also invite deliberation, and the rice noodles over which broth and meat are served can be tricky. Then there's the accompanying plate of greens and herbs - often Thai basil, bean sprouts, saw-leaf herb, cilantro, chilies - that can be added to the bowl. Finally, the table is apt to be set with assorted condiments - eight at Tamarind, including pickled jalapeno chile peppers, plum sauce, bean paste, fish sauce - that also are meant to increase the complexity of the dish, according to personal whim. All this takes time, sort of demolishing the notion that inexpensive food can be eaten fast.
Tamarind offers 11 kinds of pho, along with several other sorts of noodle and rice plates. I found myself wishing that the varied meats of the signature pho were more tender, and that the accompanying produce included more than bean sprouts, Thai basil and lime, but Tamarind is young and still breaking itself in. It's a small but attractive addition to midtown, and if your server is the personable and informative Nai you won't quibble about the meat being a little chewy.
Tamarind, 2502 J St., is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; (916) 442-8880 is to be the number, but it isn't yet working.