From North Vietnam to South King Street at Bac Nam

Pho (small bowl) with Chicken

Ah, yes, Pho. Just as one might expect as top-of-mind when mentioning a Vietnamese restaurant. But one look at the menu at Bac Nam Vietnamese Restaurant, and you’ll immediately see that there’s much more beyond that iconic bowl of beef noodle soup available here. Actually, there’s so much to choose, that even after placing your order, you might still feel indecisive and unsure that’s REALLY what you want.

Even with yesterday’s visit to the restaurant – a first time for our party of five, except one person – the items we ordered was just scratching the surface of Bac Nam’s extensive menu selections.

Northern & Southern Authentic Vietnamese cuisine at Bac Nam on S. King street

The title of this entry is a play off the English translation of the restaurant’s name, Bac Nam, which in Vietnamese means “North South”, as in the regions of Vietnam the cuisine here covers. As the Honolulu Advertiser’s review of Bac Nam stated, “Imagine an American restaurant serving fantastic New England clam chowder and an awesome Louisiana gumbo, too, and you get the idea” .

Speaking of reviews, Bac Nam has received many praises over the 4 (or more?) years of operation from various print and online publications; and that’s very reassuring to know as first-timers like we were on this visit. And I’ll be the first to say, I’m a rookie all-the-way when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. And I ashamedly confess that up until today, have NEVER tried Pho in my life, which even that “mission” has yet to be fully accomplished.

The dining room is very small, with a seating capacity of, I’m guessing (forgot to ask, sorry) no more than 40 adults maximum.

Luckily for us, on this 11:30am early-in-the-week Tuesday visit, the place was slow, so our service was better than I imagine it might have been had the place been packed. There were also several parking stalls still available behind the restaurant, along with the one we grabbed.

Our server/busser/host/cashier was the owner, Mr. Dam Huyn, the other half of the chef/prep cook/everything else, his wife Kimmy, who was the only other staffer in the house, busy preparing all the orders back in the kitchen. Regardless of this being a “skeleton crew” 2-person operation at the time of our visit, our orders still arrived in a timely manner, and water glasses kept full.

The decor may look almost “plate lunch stand’ish” in the photo, but the overall ambience actually feels quite cozy, quiet and very clean. Someone on our table even commented that their bathroom was well-kept, which gives that much more of a good impression.

Let’s get back to the food. Thankfully, along the culinary path from South to North Vietnam, back on down and way over to Hawaii on South King Street, Bac Nam sticks by its Vietnamese heritage, without trying to appease to “local” tastes. If I seen anything resembling mac salad or two scoops rice here, I’d have been very disappointed. The closest you’ll find that isn’t native to their eastern roots is soda.

So what’s to start with? Let’s check it out!…

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We went with Diner E’s recommendation and ordered the Crispy Fried Stuffed Chicken Wings, and the Spring Rolls…

Crispy Fried Stuffed Chicken Wings – Ground pork, mixed with long rice, onion, mushrooms, manioc and carrot stuffed into prepared chicken wings, then deep fried. Served with Fish Sauce. $7.95

Spring Rolls – A combination of shrimp, crab meat, pork hash and vegetables, wrapped in Vietnamese rice paper then deep fried until golden brown. Served with Fish Sauce. $6.95.

Diner E was right. These two items ROCKED! Those chicken wings really throw a left curve to your palate once you bite into them, as you’re expecting chicken, but instead are greeted with this complex combination of that pork, mushrooms and carrots flavor and texture. That along with the golden panko-like crust is just dynamite. Especially when you dip them into the fish sauce that came with the Spring Rolls. If you order those wings by themselves, ask for the Fish Sauce to go with it. Even for an extra charge, it would be worth it.

Bac Nam’s house Fish Sauce

It tastes similar to Filipino Patis, while not being really “fishy”. It’s slightly salty, sweet, acidic and spicy (chili pepper) all at the same time, covering that whole spectrum. There’s shredded carrots, and I think Daikon, along with chili pepper. Not only does it compliment the savory meats, but also makes a great salad dressing for the greens provided. The oughta’ sell that stuff in bottles.

With the spring rolls, you make lettuce wraps with them and either dip or pour the fish sauce on them…

The complexity of ingredients in the spring roll, along with the crispy-fried rice paper wrapper, contrasted by the cool and refreshing mint leaves and lettuce, and that multi-faceted Fish Sauce is so delicious. I could just order the following two appetizers as a meal and be happy with that! But we all shared that just to get a little taste of what’s to follow.

So what shall we order for the main course? Hmmm… let’s see?… decisions, decisions, decision…

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To several of our guests’ disappointment, the sandwiches shown on the menu are no longer available, as Mr. Huyn broke the news and explained that they’re too time consuming to make. Shucks. That, and a bowl of Pho would have been a great lunchtime meal.

So instead of that, which is what Diner C orginally wanted, she a summer roll to go along with her order of Pho…

Summer Roll – Shrimp, vermicelli (noodles), mint and lettuce, wrapped in a Vietnamese Rice Paper, served with a peanut sauce. $2.00

That’s actually just one half of the summer roll; the other half was already eaten.

(Again) Here’s her order of Pho with Chicken…

Pho (small bowl) with Chicken, $5.75

At that incredible price, even this small bowl comes with a full serving of fresh vegetable toppings!…

Pho vegetable toppings – Fresh Thai Basil, Mint and Bean Sprouts

Absolutely incredible value. Even more incredible is their Pho beef-based soup broth, which ALL their Pho selections are based on. Diner C gave me a spoonful to try, which was almost an “awakening” moment for me. I was finally initiated into the wonderful world of Pho! And I didn’t order this! Ack! But my-oh-my is this some good stuff! It has this really hearty, beefy savory foundation, along with that hint of star anise and lemon grass, and a minor hint of whatever else goes into making the broth. Mr. Huyn said it takes over 8 hours to prepare it. I believe. Common, you’re talking to a Ramen enthusiast here! I really have nothing to compare Bac Nam’s Pho with to other popular eateries who specialize in it, but from what very little I tasted, I’m going back to Bac Nam for sure for this dish!

Go back to the NOODLE SOUP section on the menu, and you can see they have the PHO’s Special Combination of Meat for only $6.75. What a bargain! That’s cheaper than many plate lunches now-a-days, and you’re getting all that, including the TLC that’s involved in making it? As Jack Black said in the film, Shallow Hal, “KOO KOO! KOO KOO!” lol

Then there’s our lovely birthday girl of the day, who ordered the Chicken Curry, along with a side order of Jasmine Rice…

House Special Chicken Curry – Carrots, potatoes, onion, lemon grass, red pepper, coconut milk and chicken. $7.95

Side order Jasmine Rice, $2.00

She also shared with me a sample spoonful, and this also was delicious. It tasted pretty much like Thai style curry, using pretty much similar ingredients. It was mildly spicy and the coconut milk flavor was on the lighter side, not heavy. Very good. I’d get this if I was in the mood for stew that day.

Diner A ordered the Rice Plate with Barbecued Chicken…

Rice Plate with Barbecued Chicken – Served the FINEST GRAIN RICE, House special fish sauce, lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes. $7.50

Diner E went for Rice Plate with Barbecued Shrimp and Beef Short Ribs…

Rice Plate with Barbecued Shrimp and Beef Short Ribs – Served the FINEST GRAIN RICE, House special fish sauce, lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes. $8.95

Look at the size of these two plates, the quality of the ingredients, execution of the cooking and the prices. I can’t believe it. Most importantly, look at the those fire-grilled seared edges! No flat-top griddles here. When they say “barbecue”, they really mean BARBECUE! I didn’t try the beef or the shrimp, but the chicken tasted like it was coated with lemon grass and chili pepper based marinade, which complimented it quite nicely, and a refreshing alternative to the ever-familiar Japanese Teriyaki and korean BBQ styles. Very moist and tender as well. So good, to our amazement, Diner A, as skinny as he is, finished the whole plate! No doggy bags here!

Finally we have my order, which I chose the Cold Vermicelli Noodles, or “Bun”…

Bun with Sauteed Beef – Cold Vermicelli noodles, or “Bun”. composed of chopped mint leaves, bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, cucumber, pickles, and house fish sauce.

What would be neat is if they served this “Bun” dish is CLEAR glass bowl so that you can see the layers of fresh vegetables buried beneath the noodles on top. Here I mixed it around to dig some of that good up from underneath…

I suppose you can say it’s the Vietnamese version of a cold somen salad, which I love. This was also delicious, except for one thing: I already had the spring roll as an appetizer, which used the same fish sauce, and really, this “Bun” dish IS a spring roll, sans the rice paper wrapper. So for me, it was almost a redundant follow-up of the appetizer.

The Bun orders come with an even bigger bowl of that fish sauce, which you can either pour over like a dressing, or use a dip…

I was hoping the “sauteed beef” would have had more seared and burnt edges on it for added flavor and and texture, but they instead tasted almost like they were boiled. It was tender, but still, the barbecue style, like how they were on the rice plates would have been better to accompany this dish, I think.

After all that on this early weekday lunch, we were stuffed and had no room for dessert. But here it is, in case you’re interested…

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While not as adventurous as some others have been, at least each of us tried a pretty good variety of what’s to offer here. There’s also

I’m not sure if they’re in the process of ordering new menus to print, but in the mean time they should at least cover up the sandwich section with a piece of paper taped over it. And while they might be working on that, they just might consider raising the prices just a little to make their hard work pay off. Not that I’m advocating higher prices to us as customers, but still. I’d hate to see a fine place like this shut down because it wasn’t profitable or worth the hard work involved.

From our impression of everything we ordered, you can really tell Kimmy puts great effort and a personal touch with pride into each and every dish that comes out of that kitchen, which really makes this place special.

Bac Nam left us all highly impressed by the wonderful food, trueness to its cultural heritage, and very friendly owners/staff. So much that we’re left wanting to try more. Much more.

Items I’d like to try on future visits include the Pho combination special (of course!), the Jellyfish salad, the Fried, Spicy Lemongrass Fish, and perhaps one of those House Special Hot Pots.

Bac Nam is highly recommended. I wish them many years to come of success at what they do best: Authentic North South Vietnamese Cuisine.

The menu cover

Bac Nam
Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine
1117 S. King St.

Limited parking behind restaurant,
and metered parking on the street in front

The Tasty Island Rating:

(4) Excellent. Worth another visit or purchase. (Winnahz!)

Related links:
Bac Nam serves up home-style Vietnamese dishes – Honolulu Advertiser review
Bac Nam – Vietnamese Food Beyond Pho – Hawaii Diner
Bac Nam – Ono Kine Grindz
Bac Nam – Yelp user reviews


11 thoughts on “From North Vietnam to South King Street at Bac Nam

  1. Awesome blog! I’m a new reader and I love your photos, clear descriptions, and honest opinions. I’m a former Kama’aina scheduled for my yearly visit in July. Will definitely be studying your recommendations and making a list to take along! Thank you!

  2. The vietnamese resturants that i go to here in atlanta don’t have chicken wings on the menu. But i really don’t go there to get chicken wings i go there for the soup.

  3. I’m not a pho fan, but everything else looks great. You know it’s Vietnamese when everything comes with some kind of fresh vegetable. (and the fish sauce is to die for!) (love the fish sauce) (it’s good on mochi too)

  4. You know, this is the first time I’ve not felt insanely jealous while reading your blog. I’m out in Pennsylvania, so lots of the things you talk about just don’t exist around here (like okazuyas – there isn’t a large japanese influence here). But Vietnamese – now there is something I can feel you on. Pho is absolutely, positively, definitely the only thing I want on a cold rainy day. And on a sticky, hot, miserable day. Another great thing about Vietnamese food is the use of charcoal for grilling – get the beef wrapped in leaves. I usually skip things that say ‘sauteed’ or ‘stewed’; Korean food is better for that. Some recommendations for you: the pounded shrimp, especially as you have proclaimed your love for fishcakes. Grilled porkchops over rice; shredded pork, egg loaf, and grilled porkchop. Ask for Sriracha – I haven’t seen you mention this before, so if you don’t know what it is, it’s garlic spicy good! Get the pho with rare steak, add extra fish sauce (straight, not the dipping sauce). And that dipping sauce – it’s easy to make! Fish sauce, palm sugar (or brown), dried chili flakes, palm/rice/red vinegar, shredded daikon and carrot, and a crushed clove of garlic. If you’re going to let it sit around, add the veggies no more than a couple of hours before serving.

    You know, my fave viet-thai place uses the same plates…

  5. Thanks for the awesome pictures! I love pho (which is popular in Seattle, so fortunately I can get it anytime). Just like Eris, I drizzle some Sriracha in it, too. I always feel so healthy getting a bowl of pho with some beef (usually I pick the flank cuts) and tripe in it, topped off with the basil and sprouts.

    It’s too bad this restaurant no longer offers banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), but I wonder if the Ba Le chain provides too much competition in that area? I remember when one of the first Ba Le places opened in the ’80s in downtown Honolulu (perhaps it was the first?) and those sandwiches were such a new and delicious thing for us. Last time I visited Honolulu (during the holidays), there seemed to be Ba Le outlets everywhere. I even found one near Kona.

  6. Howzit Syndrax. Glad you like it here. Will do my best to keep it interesting.

    Winks to Kat.

    Chicken Wings, you might have overlooked the fact that those aren’t the typical NY/American Style “Buffalo” wings, but they’re actually stuffed under the skin with a complex mixture of pork, mushrooms and vegetables. It’s like NO wing you’ve ever had before. I can almost guarantee it! By far the best “wings” I’ve had.

    Jodi, indeed. Most asian cuisine in general makes vegetables a priority, unlike western food, where the whole focus is MEAT.

    Eris, interesting on pointing that out about various asian influences on the mainland; Penn state in particular. It seems the Chinese and Vietnamese have spread out the farthest on the CONUS, heading farther east, while the Japanese (or Okinawans, for that matter) have mostly settled more in the West coast states. I could be wrong though, if anyone wants to correct me on that assumption.

    Hi Jenny, yes our party was a bit bummed out about the discontinued sandwiches. Especially when it looked so appealing (and a tease on the menu) for that lunch time meal we were having. Mr. Huyn really should “X” it out on the menu so folks know it’s not available, or at least mention it every time he seats new guests.

    Bale is still doing well here on Oahu, with locations in just about every major town. There’s a really, really good one in the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center. I love the flavor of those Vietnamese style pickled vegetables, along with the mint leaves and cilantro in that French roll bun. So refreshing, with such a great flavor and texture contrast.

  7. Everything is soooo good here it’s hard to recommend one dish, but the HUE’s spicy beef soup is amazing. An added plus — if you feel a cold coming on, this will wipe it out. I swear.

  8. I don’t know what the CONUS is, but I know a little bit about how Asian immigrants spread along the east coast. Here in Philly, we’ve got one of the largest chinatowns, with a fair amount of Vietnamese and Thai influence. South Philly (formerly Italian territory) is strongly Vietnamese. Northeast Philly, and the NE suburbs have had a lot of Korean immigration. Indians (mostly South Indians) have spread out fairly evenly between here and DC, maybe Virginia. Around here, most Japanese restaurants are either run by Chinese or Korean chefs, or feature Japanese and Korean/Chinese food. Nothing wrong with sashimi and bibimbop for dinner!

  9. Eris – “CONUS” is short for “Continental US”. That’s very interesting info’ about the asian influence in your neck of the woods. Here in Hawaii, we have a few Japanese restaurants that are owned and operated by Koreans. I believe Taiyo Ramen is one. There’s also a few Korean Yakiniku restaurants that incorporate Japanese dishes into the menu, which is otherwise mostly Korean. Whichever the case, it’s all good to me!

    Paul, thanks for the tip! **puts HUE’s Spicy Beef Soup on “to-do list”!**

  10. Enjoyed reading a first-timer’s experience, but don’t go at dinner time, or I won’t be able to get a table!

    We were there 2 nights ago, and had the spring rolls (I know, my guys can’t give up eating the tried and true stuff), grilled beef in la lot leaves, stewed beef with rice, and special flat rice noodle soup. I had a stinking sinus headache, so that soup for me – with all its aromatics – is medicine. We did have leftovers of soup and stewed beef.

    We also eat the crab soup and the Bun Cha Gio – cool noodles with sliced spring rolls and veggies with dipping sauce – is perfect for hot days. There are some things we don’t care for: the shaken beef and tamarind shrimp, and many things we need to try: curry chicken and various hot pots.

    Other favorites are the rice with braised large prawns (Kimmy says even her children ask her to just make the sauce. ) My husband and son fight over the sauce, so she kindly makes extra. Not sure that would work for anyone else, as we’ve known her since our son was too young for chili peppers in his dipping sauce, and she was at The Other Place. I didn’t know she’d left until I saw her one day outside Safeway, where she handed me the business card for her (then) new restaurant. She said, “Please, you come, Auntie?” Way to make me feel old!

    When they returned recently from Vietnam, Kimmy tells me her children only liked the food in the North, which is more heavily French influenced. “Just like your cooking, Mommy,” they said.

    Here is a meditation on that member of the allium family so often used in Vietnamese cooking:

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