Nam Hua was one of the last restaurants I visited before everything changed, before we went to takeout and delivery. Dining rooms like the one at this Vietnamese restaurant, usually an easy drive on a weekday for a bowl of fragrant, fresh herb-mobbed soup, became mythical. Perhaps it’s because the no-frills space is the epitome of casual and communal, a utilitarian enclave where customers sit under televisions that broadcast Vietnamese-language channels.
You feel you’re among family at Nam Hua. The name means “fifth daughter” (a reference to the owner); tchotchkes adorn the register; and it wasn’t unusual that during that last visit, a family member was sitting near the register, a teapot before him, slowly peeling and eating quail eggs. During normal times, people come here for the lunch buffet or for the vast menu of homey, hard-to-find, rustic Vietnamese dishes. I come for the lacy-edged, coconut milk-imbued bánh xèo crêpes, bigger, crisper, and more wonderful than others in town. (As someone who is slightly obsessed, I’ve made a study of this. You can still get them to go and devour them ravenously, all crisp edges and pancakey center.)
When you’re looking for them, it’s a place to find traditional dishes like braised, caramelized pork and eggs; snails with basil; clear-brothed pork meatball and winter melon soup; betel leaf-wrapped beef cigars; and frog. (Those frogs, like many of the proteins, arrive frozen.) Refrigerators hold housemade pandan-tinted yogurt and little tubs of taro in salted coconut milk to go. Order a throwback egg soda—a slurry of condensed milk, egg, fizzy soda water, and shaved ice—or salty limeade.
Nam Hua feels communal, too, because you can throw yourself into a hot pot—goat with turmeric, taro, and shiitake mushrooms; tangy eel, pineapple, and lemongrass; duck in a fermented bean curd broth. They have one of the most diverse and robust arrays I’ve seen. Or—and you may be cautioned—that stinky-fragrant, fermented fish hot pot (lau mam), a murky bubbling cauldron, salty as anchovy and five times more pungent, whose heady perfume a close Vietnamese friend of mine brought me especially out to try. The bunsen burner sat on our table. The broth bubbled. As I piled in banana blossom, my eyes watered, and I smiled to see how much my friend was in heaven, brought back with that fermented-fish pungency to a whole raft of memories. I knew she would return one day for the family-style meal that reminded her of home. How could we know that we’d be missing not just the comforting eats, but also the charm of the tchotchkes. I worry about small, family-owned businesses like Nam Hua. They may have fewer outside employees and be able to scale back, but that doesn’t make them less vulnerable. Takeout lets you delve into the flavors. And eventually, you can do communal hot pots, too.