Are you feeling overwhelmed by the demands of your job, working 10-hour days and subsisting on meal replacement bars instead of stopping for a break?
Trung Nguyen, co-owner of Co Nam, can sympathize. Whenever he visits his birth country of Vietnam, he's reminded of just how central work is to American life. "We're more sociable. People get out, they give each other hugs, they talk, they say, 'How're you doing,' you know. They're not so head-in-the-sand, 'gotta get back to work' kind of deal," he said. "I think outside of the U.S., people have a life."
So when Trung and his wife, co-owner and executive chef Vy Lieou (also of Xyclo on Piedmont Avenue) were expanding Co Nam from its original location in Nob Hill to a second location in Temescal, they modified their original fast-casual concept, where they imagined commuters would stop for a quick noodle bowl on their way home from MacArthur BART. Nguyen said Co Nam is still more of a quick-service eatery during lunchtime. But in the evenings, they decided to create a quán nhu, which Nguyen likens to a Vietnamese izakaya or gastropub. "In Asia, a lot of these places pop up near metro centers to capitalize on the fact that before you go to work and after you come home from work, you would get together with friends, just hang out, snack, drink, eat," he explained. "It's a social center."
Co Nam might be sleek and hip, but it's meant to feel like home. Nguyen explained that "Co Nam" means fifth auntie in Vietnamese, but it's often used in the broader sense of the word "auntie."
"Co nam for us is more like the universal auntie, or grandma, or uncle that you typically would go and have dinner with," he said. "So we wanted to make [it] homey, memorable, fun, and inviting." Photos of Nguyen's family — taken during his early childhood in Vietnam and the Thai refugee camp his family entered when he was 6 — are artfully arranged on the walls.
Co Nam also is neighborhood-centered. Most employees live within walking distance, and Trung imagines most of his customers will live in the neighborhood, too. And though Co Nam focuses on Vietnamese and Southeast Asian food, Nguyen and Lieou invite their staff, who collectively speak eight different languages, to contribute elements of their cultures to the menu.
Though the menu draws from diverse influences, there are three traditional Vietnamese items: bánh bt lc (pork and shrimp dumplings), nem nng (pork sausages), and bò lá lt (beef wrapped in betel leaf). The bánh bt lc arrived three to an order, delicately placed atop a banana leaf. The clear dumpling skin had a pleasant chewiness thanks to tapioca flour, and the pork and shrimp added delicate savoriness. I was particularly impressed by the garnish of warm, crisp-fried shallots, and I enjoyed the sweetness of the fish sauce combined with the sharp green onions. I only wished that the fish sauce had been provided on the side instead of drizzled on top, since it was hard to scoop up the sauce from the plate.
Nem nng, Nguyen said, are a way of putting leftover cuts of pork to good use, and at Co Nam, they're made in-house using trimmings from pork chops and ribs. The sausages had a cravable umami flavor with a touch of sweetness, while a hint of char around the edges added complexity. The sausages were juicy, yet simultaneously light and airy. The orange-hued 21-ingredient sauce, which Nguyen said includes shrimp, crab, and lard, added layers of richness. But like the bánh bt lc, I wish the sausages were served with extra sauce on the side.
The bò lá lt is one of Nguyen's favorite dishes, and it's easy to see why. The ground beef was of obvious high quality — Nguyen said it's grass-fed Angus beef — and a hint of pork fat added unctuousness to the otherwise lean beef. The beef was wrapped in betel leaf, a leaf often chewed "by aunties and uncles" according to Nguyen, which added notes of smoky, herbal flavor. Best of all was the fermented anchovy sauce, made with pineapple, garlic, lime, and Thai bird chili. It was salty, fishy, sweet, and pungent, and if sauce was served on the side, I would have drunk every drop.
The menu incorporates some broader Asian influences with the wicked buns. In the chicken version, a Chinese-style steamed bun gets lightly fried, then stuffed with five-spice grilled chicken thighs. There's still some Vietnamese influence here, though: The chicken is accompanied by shredded pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, and cilantro, plus Thai bird chili. Nguyen is adamant about the use of Thai bird chili. Many Vietnamese restaurants in the United States use jalapeños, but those aren't native to Vietnam, and Nguyen says they lack the aroma and kick of the Thai bird chili. The delicate fried crust of the bun brought out a hint of sweetness, and the Thai bird chili, as promised, added a fragrant punch of spice.
The list of dinner entrées, though evolving, offers some dishes you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in Oakland. Take, for example, the cá kho, a traditional dish of fish in a caramelized rock sugar sauce. The basa was tender and well-cooked, and the rock sugar sauce had a toasty, molasses-like flavor. However, the sauce bordered on being too sweet; more onions and chili may have balanced things out.
Lieou also has been experimenting with entrées of her own creation, like a grilled giant river prawn. Here, a single prawn was cut in half and grilled shell-on with shrimp paste, then served in a shrimp broth with pickled pearl onions and housemade squid ink noodles. The prawn was perfectly grilled — though I wish there was more than one — and the shrimp paste added an extra burst of sweet, shrimpy essence to the dish. The pickled onions, made with sherry and red vinegar, added tangy crunch. The broth was oversalted, but the noodles had an ideal al dente firmness and crinkly texture that made them some of the best handmade noodles I've had in recent memory. But the entrées need fine-tuning, and I found myself wishing instead for more nem nng and bò lá lt — the kind of dishes that are perfect for sharing with friends after a hard day of work.