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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 26, 2004

Bac Nam serves up home-style Vietnamese dishes

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

"Soup!" declared 2-year old Caitlyn excitedly. Although she couldn't say much else, everyone at the table clearly understood she wanted more.


• 1117 S. King St.

• 597-8201

• Open daily, 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.


• Limited parking behind the restaurant, metered street parking in front

What could this little girl know about the stuff her mother was patiently feeding her by the spoonful? Perhaps it was that she recognized darn good soup when she tasted it.

We were dining at Bac Nam Vietnamese restaurant on South King Street, near McKinley High.

Kimmy Huyn, co-owner and chef here, is an alchemist. It's not unusual for her to take your order, disappear into the kitchen, and then prepare it like a wizard concocting a potion. She returns shortly wearing a big smile, bearing large bowls of liquid gold broth and plates laden with savory treasures. All this happens after you select from a menu with a hundred dishes, in addition to desserts and drinks.

At other times Dam Huyn, her husband and co-owner, waits on customers and delivers delicacies to the table in an equally gracious manner. Both warmly welcome their guests, making them feel right at home.

"Home" in this case is a simple, white, fluorescent-lit little eatery.

On a dinner visit, everyone in our group enjoyed the oxtail soup hot pot ($22.95). The steaming broth was full of aromas and flavors of star anise, fresh ginger and peanuts. Every ladle dip brought up choi-sum greens, lotus root, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and oxtail chunks with tender meat falling off the bone. The dish could easily have fed more: Our party of five, including Caitlyn, had two bowls each, and there were still ample leftovers.

A dish of grilled beef in lá lot (pepper or wild betel nut) leaves, left, and rice with spicy lemongrass chicken are some of the dishes featured at Bac Nam Vietnamese restaurant on South King Street.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Kimmy Huyn worked at a couple of other restaurant before opening Bac Nam with her husband six months ago.
Dam Huyn told us hot-pot dishes are meant to be relished slowly over a long period. Friends gather over this dish to socialize. The pot is kept hot by a small burner while tantalizing smells emanate from its interior. The longer the pot stews, the better the flavor of the elixir inside.

With each visit to the restaurant, I found the couple making a helpful effort to describe various aspects of the menu. They talked with guests about certain popular dishes or sometimes encouraged them to try something different. The menu also was helpful and well organized, with English translations, numbered items, some colorful pictures and mostly adequate descriptions.

Bac Nam means "north south" in Vietnamese and symbolizes the cuisine featured on the menu — dishes found in both parts of the country. Imagine an American restaurant serving fantastic New England clam chowder and an awesome Louisiana gumbo, too, and you get the idea.

Kimmy Huyn worked in two other restaurants here before the couple opened Bac Nam six months ago. Like most capable chefs, she wanted a say in the menu, which the other places didn't allow. I think all of Bac Nam's customers are happy she flexed her culinary muscles to start this enterprise. Preparing food seven days a week from a repertoire of a hundred dishes is no easy feat. Not everything is perfect, but a lot of it is.

An appetizer of crispy stuffed squids ($8.95) was a wonderful starter. The squids, with a savory ground-pork filling, are coated in panko breadcrumbs and then deep-fried, providing a toothsome crunch. Jellyfish salad ($7.95) was surprisingly soft, unlike the Chinese version, and combined with slices of cha (Vietnamese pork loaf), lettuce and tomatoes. Our group was not bowled over by the jellyfish's limp texture despite the salad's good flavor from a fish-sauce dressing.

Grilled beef in lá lot (pepper or wild betel nut) leaves ($9.95) had a nice, deep smokiness. We made mini roll-up wraps with them, using thin rice paper softened in hot water. Assorted ingredients — rice vermicelli, lettuce, basil, mint, cucumber, as well as daikon and carrot pickles — give a fresh salad twist to the dish.

House specialties, including hot-pot and curry dishes, are great for family-style dining. Tamarind fried shrimps ($11.95) are large and coated in a gooey, succulently sweet sauce. Shaken beef ($10.95) had sautéed beef cubes sitting on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes. The meat was a little on the tough and chewy side, but again extremely well-seasoned. One of our favorites is Bac Nam's curry ($7.95 for chicken to $28 for whole crab). Made with coconut milk and your choice of meat, it packs a wallop of spicy, rich flavor.

A few vegetarian dishes and Vietnamese sandwiches ($4 to $6.95) are also available, along with assorted rice plates ($6.95 to $11.95) and cold vermicelli dishes ($6.95 to $8.50). If you can appreciate authentic, home-style cooking, prices are reasonable in relation to the quality and quantity of food you get.

Don't overlook some of the more unusual dishes at Bac Nam. Vermicelli soup of snails ($6.95) was full of small snails that resembled tasty, little clams. Seaweed and mongo (mung) bean sweet treat ($2.50) is a refreshingly cool change for dessert.

I am eager to try all 100 dishes and am slowly working my way through the menu, but it'll be hard not to go back to my current favorites. If Bac Nam can pass the Mikey/Life cereal test with Caitlyn — it's good enough for a finicky 2-year old — it's certainly good enough for me.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.