I've come across many Vietnamese restaurants in the East Bay specializing in all kinds of regional dishes. But despite perusing many of their menus — many of them sprawling and lengthy — Lemon Pepper is the first place where I've found Vietnamese-style goat.
The three-month-old restaurant, owned by Oakland-raised brothers Kevin and Linh Lam, prides itself on being a little different. The brothers are originally from My Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. Some dishes originate from their hometown. Others hail from Saigon, the city where Linh's wife was living and cooking at her family's restaurant up until recently. Now, she's the cook at Lemon Pepper, cooking dishes that Linh claims are identical to what you'd find in Vietnam. Still other dishes draw more broadly from the southern regions of the country. But even though he's lived in Oakland for 30 years, Linh said he's never seen a restaurant here serving similar fare.
"All the food here is very different from everybody around here," he said. "We try to do something different."
Yes, you can find staples like egg rolls and vermicelli bowls here — and they're both done very well. You can also find Oakland's go-to winter comfort food, beef pho. But seeing as there's an entire section of the menu dedicated to goat, I was here to try it — namely the goat noodle soup.
Though the menu gave no more detail than "goat egg noodle soup," it was impressively presented with a sheet of delicately fried tofu skin on top, with stalks of green onion, goji berries, and slices of taro. The tofu skin was flavorful and crisp. The goji berries added medicinal flavor and a hint of sweetness to the beef-based broth. The taro, meanwhile, added creamy, starchy, satisfying texture. Dark leafy greens provided crunch and bitterness.
The goat meat was tender, with mellow yet fragrant flavor. Dipping the nuggets of meat into the two accompanying sauces perked up the flavor. The homemade bean curd sauce was creamy, sweet, and a little funky, while the garlicky sate sauce accented the dish with spice. The firm, chewy egg noodles, meanwhile, added heft to the dish. Linh describes this dish, popular in southern Vietnam, as a scaled-down, personal size version of the goat hot pots that are usually big enough to share with an entire family.
I also sampled the hu tieu sate, another relatively hard-to-find noodle soup. The thick red broth successfully balanced notes of spice from the sate sauce with sweetness from the white onion. The broth was filled with tender rare steak and beef balls, while garnishes like raw tomato and cucumber added freshness. I loved the hint of funk from the fermented soybeans, which was tamed by the straightforward flavor of the rice noodles.
Though you won't have too hard of a time finding hu tieu, a Vietnamese noodle dish with Chinese origins, the version here is solid. It's a noodle dish optionally served with soup on the side. I ordered the version with egg noodles and soup on the side. The noodles came topped with shrimp, ground pork, pork slices, pork kidneys, quail eggs, dried shrimp, green onions, bean sprouts, and fried onions. I loved the combination of textures and flavors that this bowl provided; for best results, be sure to mix everything up to coat the noodles with the salty-sweet sauce at the bottom of the bowl. The soup on the side, meanwhile, was clear, light, and delicate — an ideal palate cleanser.
The seafood version is also nice for a change of pace. Served with the broth and with rice noodles rather than egg noodles, it's a lighter, more delicate dish. The squid was simultaneously crunchy and tender, while fish balls and shrimp added some sweetness to the soup. Meanwhile, the quail eggs were cooked with a nice jelly-like yolk that burst in my mouth upon biting into it.
And while Vietnamese-style beef stew is a fairly common dish, I found Lemon Pepper's rendition well-made and satisfying. It's available with rice noodles, egg noodles, or French bread, though I chose egg noodles, which added firm texture and satisfying richness. The stew was thick and comforting, fragrant with spices and a hint of heat. The brisket was tender, while the tendon added bouncy, crunchy texture. Onions and carrots added earthy, caramel-like notes balanced out by the green onion.
Though the noodle soups are generously portioned, I recommend splitting an appetizer if you visit with a friend in order to sample more of the menu. The marinated fried chicken wings packed plenty of fish sauce flavor, while the skin was crisp and delicate. But I particularly enjoyed the bo bia: spring rolls made with Chinese sausage and an egg omelet rather than the more common variations made with shrimp. The Chinese sausage added sweet, savory flavors, while the egg provided richness. Crushed peanuts and dried shrimp added umami, while bean sprouts and lettuce added freshness and crunch. The house-made hoisin sauce on the side was excellent and not too sweet like some bottled versions can be. I particularly liked the fact that both the chicken wings and bo bia came with two cups of dipping sauce, ensuring that I didn't have to fight over the sauce with my dining companion or worry that I'd run out of sauce.
In fact, little touches like this — along with the unusual, well-executed menu — are part of what makes Lemon Pepper special. During my visits, Kevin and Linh waited on the customers themselves, offering them a smile and hot tea and even the occasional fist bump. They're happy to provide suggestions or walk guests through a menu that might have some unfamiliar choices. It's also one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in the area that's open on Wednesdays — so next time you're craving Vietnamese food on a Wednesday and want to try something new, tell the Lam brothers I sent you.