"Nom nom" is Internet onomatopoeia, a phrase describing someone noisily and blissfully devouring a mouthful of food. (It's a possible transcription of Cookie Monster's chewing, paired with pictures of cute bunnies or a drunken David Hasselhoff.) If you're anything like me, it's definitely the way you'll be pronouncing David Truong's Nam Nam Cafe -- or at least the sound you'll make with some of his simple and sensational Vietnamese dishes.
This article appears in the January 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
Since April 2011, Nam Nam has crammed itself into the small cinderblock building that used to house Simply Thai, an almost-invisible appendage to a convenience store at the corner of Wallace and Wilmington avenues in St. Matthews. The tiny interior, pass-throughs to the kitchen dominating its back wall, contains several small tables within its minimally decorated walls. Nam Nam’s menu is similarly stripped down, lacking the multiple pages found in many of Louisville’s other Vietnamese restaurants while still managing to offer rolls, salads, entrées, desserts and even drinks such as bubble tea.
“My menu is much smaller than most of Louisville’s Vietnamese restaurants,” 31-year old chef/owner Truong told me during a phone conversation. “I want it small so that everything can be good. Everything.” As a young man, Truong, a self-described “foodie,” was “always in the kitchen” in his parents’ restaurants (one being Middletown’s China Express), then “just kept learning and watching” as he began working for his parents’ friend, Peng Looi, at August Moon several years ago. Early in 2011, he persuaded his parents, who emigrated from Vietnam in the ’70s, to provide backing for his own Vietnamese restaurant, something he believed could stand apart from the crowd. “No offense to anyone, but I thought that other than Basa, the Vietnamese places in town were kind of passé,” Truong said. “I wanted to do something more modern. Not fusion or anything — just good, fresh Vietnamese that’s not messed with too much.”
This focus on freshness reinvigorated my interest in several familiar dishes, particularly Truong’s Vietnamese crepe ($9). Instead of the too-thick, agglutinative Asian frittata I had expected, Nam Nam’s scallion-flecked, rice-flour-and-coconut-milk crepe was whisper thin, brown and crunchy, filled with crisp-tender bean sprouts, mild onions, plus shrimp and pork laced with just the right touch of earthy fish sauce. “Traditionally, you can cook the vegetables in the crepe, but I prefer to cook (the crepe) separately,” Truong said. “That way the crepe gets crispy.”
While I could trace many of the clean tastes to Truong’s local sources (including Stone Cross Farm in Taylorsville), he can’t completely create the experience he wants from local ingredients. He sources some spices from Asian importers, and he’s planning a trip later this year to Vietnam for a mix he uses in Nam Nam’s pho ($7.50 to $9). “They won’t export the stuff I want,” Truong told me. “I have to go there and get it.” His bánh mì baguettes have a shorter trip, and while Truong politely refused to tell me where they come from, he said he had to travel out of state. “Nobody here can do it right,” he said. “If it’s not light, airy and crunchy, it ruins the sandwich.” My lemon grass-grilled tofu ($6) proved the bread was worth the road trip, with a gossamer shell crackling into tart and meaty tofu, pickled vegetables and jalapeños.
The minuscule kitchen (half the size of the 24-seat Lilliputian dining room) must be a challenge when cooking everything fresh to order, including carry-outs, but Truong and his staff of five (he told me his mother sometimes helps him cook) manage to turn out dishes relatively quickly, though not without the occasional mistake. Fortunately for me, one “mistake” still seemed pretty darned delicious. My caramelized clay-pot catfish ($9) seemed to me a novel take on an often-soupy classic, the steamed-soft fish crusted with a sticky-sweet syrup of pineapple caramel and spiked with ginger and garlic. The hot pot was almost dry. When I asked about turning the braise into what was basically a lacquer, Truong bashfully admitted the kitchen let the bubbling pot sit too long before serving and there was “supposed to be more liquid.”
I wasn’t amazed by what seemed to be a bit of East-West fusion, a rice platter with mini salad ($8 to $12). I liked the rice and lemon grass chicken mixed with a fried egg, but the flavors clashed with the vinaigrette, lettuce and sweet tomatoes in the salad. A better break from traditional Vietnamese cuisine are definitely the tacos ($6), which deliciously pack cilantro, cucumber, carrots and your choice of pork, chicken or tofu into corn tortillas.
I ended several meals at Nam Nam with a glass of green-tea milk bubble tea ($3.50), usually a to-go order to make room for more diners. In the future, I may see how Truong’s dishes take to carry-out because if they’re as good at home as they are on-site, I can make all the “nom nom” noises I want without drawing any undue attention.
Photo: courtesy John Nation