With its stylized olive-and-black façade and the silhouette of a lone woman in a wide hat standing in the midst of white lettering, Mama Hong's Vietnamese Kitchen stands out on Burbank's San Fernando Boulevard.
Inside, spare décor and clean lines highlight a long, mirrored wall that is strung, ceiling to chair rail, with strands of rope that from a distance almost look like streams of water. The restaurant looks like a lunch joint from chair rail down, and more upscale from chair rail up, like it's wearing a dress shirt and jacket with shorts — giving it a fun, relaxed feel.
The food and attentive service stand out as well. We started with cha gio, egg rolls fried crisp, stuffed with ground pork, glass noodles, eggs, carrots, onions and radishes. The exterior was golden brown and greaseless, the interior a delicious blend of flavors and textures. Nuoc cham dipping sauce added its flavor of lime, fish sauce, garlic and red pepper.
Goi cuon, spring rolls with shrimp, pork, vermicelli, carrot and green onion, were crisp and fresh, a flavorful salad wrapped in a rice-paper blanket. The brown hoisin peanut dipping sauce was spicy and slightly sweet, but not cloyingly so. Tom cuon chien don, shrimp wrapped in a wonton blanket and deep-fried, were slight but tasty dipped in nuoc cham.
The highlight of the meal, and the reason we'll be back to Mama Hong's, is the banh mi, a Vietnamese baguette sandwich that the restaurant offers for $4.95. The perfect size for lunch, the banh mi comes on a toasted mini French loaf — unbelievably fresh and light, with a perfect crackly crust — with a choice of grilled chicken, pork or beef. We tried the boldly flavored pork — savory, garlicky, with hints of fish sauce and (could it be?) something resembling maple syrup. The meat is topped with crunchy pickled carrots, cucumber slices and daikon radish.
The Vietnamese street food with a French colonial history started when the French brought baguettes to Vietnam. Locals called them banh tay, or foreign cake. The banh mi (wheat cake) started out as a minimalist Parisian-style pate sandwich, one enjoyed by the rich. Then it morphed into a Saigon-style flavor explosion and became all about the meat, served in shops and on the street. Mama Hong's continues that tradition with a delicious and portable take-away meal.
Pho? Not so portable, but also delicious. Mama Hong's offers a variety of pho, including the Mama's combo of sliced steak, brisket and meatballs, a traditional combo of sliced steak, brisket, fatty brisket and tendon, and a seafood combo of shrimp, squid, imitation crab and fish cake.
We chose the filet mignon pho. The broth was rich and flavorful in that slightly narcotic manner of all great pho bases. The beef was tender, juicy and rich. But the noodles lay at the bottom of the bowl, a great, tangled, ropy lump. About 10 minutes into the meal they loosened up and began their writhing dance on chopsticks. You can expect stuck-together noodles if you're trying to assemble take-out pho at home, but in the restaurant? The broth and the beef deserve better.
The restaurant serves rice dishes such as grilled pork chops with rice; a grilled meat combo with a choice of beef, pork or chicken; and shaken beef tenderloin, with diced tenderloin cubes and onions fried in butter, served with jasmine rice and a small bowl of pho broth.
Vermicelli dishes are almost as varied, with grilled meat and pork sausage, tofu and a Hanoi-style pan-seared tilapia cooked with turmeric and dill. We opted for the vermicelli combination with large, juicy, grilled shrimp and beef served over the soft rice noodles tossed with lettuce, carrots, bean sprouts and cucumbers. A splash of nuoc cham boosts the flavor of the noodles, while the meat is flavorful enough on its own.
Vietnamese iced coffee and tea, with their traditional assault of condensed milk, round out a meal on a hot day. Great for washing down a banh mi.
REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
Mama Hong's Vietnamese Kitchen
Where: 211 N. San Fernando Blvd., Burbank; (818) 558-6262
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $3.95 to $11.95; entrees, $7.50 to $11.95; pho, $7.50 to $9.50; banh mi, $4.95.