I miss college lunches. Because college is a beautiful time when the need for cheap sustenance to stop the tummy rumblings between classes outweighs any interest in flavor, quality or authenticity.
In the beginning, you’re fine annihilating whatever’s been chosen to occupy the on-campus food court, but when you’ve finally had more Subway, Carl’s Jr. and Panda Express than one stomach lining should ever have to endure (end of freshman year?), it’s time to venture out and see what the shopping centers surrounding school have in store. Not for better food, just for the chance to taste something different.
If you go to Santa Ana College (where I attended and work now), the lunchtime savior from cafeteria pizza and pre-packaged tuna sandwiches the last few years has been Nam, a home-grown fast-foodified Vietnamese restaurant that has a rare college-crucial combination of inoffensive ethnic food and student-friendly quickness.
Bonus: everything’s under $8.
Late last year, Nam opened its third counter-service location across the street from Cal State Long Beach (a second is in Buena Park) and it used the occasion to roll out a new menu designed by Top Chef Vietnam’s first winner, Vo Hoang Nhan. Nhan appears to have no other stake in this eatery besides being paid to put his name on the menu, but he’s got a few thoughtful additions not included in Santa Ana’s spread.
Unlike Lee’s Sandwiches and its endless list of bánh mis, or any number of Long Beach pho restaurants that focus on creating hearty bowls of the beef noodle soup, Nam earned its reputation for specializing in a half-dozen familiar Vietnamese dishes, from pho to banh mi to bún to com (rice bowls).
The bánh mìs, at $6, are reliable foot-long bullets (I always save half for later) on crispy baguettes with all the requisite herbs and pickled goodies. The pho is aromatic, if a little sweet, overwhelmed by pungent star anise that can’t go away when you’re quick cooking broth (order the beef and put lots of condiments in it). The cha gio (crispy rolls) lack anything distinguishing on their own, but when eaten atop a bowl of fish-sauce-y bún, become revelatory.
Nhan’s menu updates include a vegetarian appetizer of “tofu fries” — spongy deep fried tofu sticks covered in shredded lemongrass that look like chapulines legs — and bo kho, a beef stew that I overheard one customer call “pho’s snazzy best friend.” Bo kho is a richer broth than plain pho and doesn’t need any of the condiments to achieve peak flavor; a great alternative for anyone who’s been there pho’d that.
Nam would never survive if plopped in the middle of Little Saigon, where you’re only as good as the Vietnamese grandma in the kitchen. But Cal State Long Beach students don’t need 100 percent authentic pho broth. They don’t even need bowls of bo kho. They just need sustenance. And it helps that it isn’t Panda Express again.
Nam Vietnamese Eatery, 5716 E 7th St #5, Long Beach; (562) 494-3888; nameatery.com