Opened a year ago by the owners of the established Chopstix restaurant, Plates Com Tom offers a more authentic look at Vietnamese homestyle cooking. When I first saw the menu, I was dubious that the kitchen could execute this range of regional and specialized dishes. Now that I've been here three times, I can say that so far it is managing to be a multi-specialist just fine and also keeping prices remarkably low.
I first tried Plates Com Tam in August with some friends after seeing "Crazy Rich Asians", having planned ahead to be hungry for chopstickable food. Fortunately all those cravings for Southeast Asian flavors could be readily satisfied by the palette of hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors with extra savoriness from pungent fish sauce served up here.
Here's the rundown . . .
#30 Com tam with BBQ pork chop, grilled shrimp on sugar cane, shredded pork, egg loaf and shrimp paste wrapped in tofu skin, $11.95. Com tam is broken rice and a comfort food for many Vietnamese. Delicate pearly broken grains as a base, this plate had a little of everything on it. I particularly liked the extra tartness and assertive chile in the nuoc cham dipping sauce accompanying this combo rice plate.
#39 Bun with grilled shrimp, BBQ pork slices, egg rolls, greens, peanuts and roasted shallots, $9.95. The best dish of this first outing with firm yet loose vermicelli, crunchy shallots, crisp greens and tasty proteins. The egg rolls were wrapped too loosely and absorbed too much oil.
Banh khot tom, $7.50. These mini rice cakes are not common even in Vietnamese-American population centers surprising me to see them offered here. These were quite credible with lightly crisp eggy batter, a bit of coconut cream and a juicy shrimp in each cup. Leaf lettuce, fresh herbs and pickles accompany for wrapping, along with nuoc cham for dipping. This sauce was less spicy and more citrusy than that served with the com tam and bun dishes.
Spicy cucumber salad, $9.50. Julienne of cucumber, carrots, celery and onion mingled with fresh cilantro, sesame seed, crunchy shallots and poached shrimp in a mild vinaigrette. This was refreshing, cooling and not at all spicy.
Green mango salad, $10.95. Not green, rather almost completely ripe slivers of mango blended with pickled root vegetables, peanuts, shrimp, cilantro and mint in a light nuoc cham. Airy shrimp chips added crisp texture.
Grilled pork paste summer rolls (nem nuong cuon), $4 for 2 rolls. Another uncommon dish, the gold standard is made by Brodard in Orange County and I even asked one of the owners how his version compares. He answered that these taste as good but are not wrapped as well. The pork forcemeat could use more grill notes. And these were wrapped too loosely in overly wet rice paper. Odd that the management was aware of the issue but had not corrected the problem yet. Again, more practice needed on rolling technique. The dipping sauce was not as concentrated as Brodard's.
Fried chicken wings with garlic fish sauce, $6.95. Returning in September, we tried the wings which were big and juicy of flesh with crisp skin. There's a garlic butter option too, but the owner recommended the garlic fish sauce version. Delicious umami bombs.
#17 Udon-style soup (banh canh), $7.25. The kitchen is proud of making these wide noodles in-house, but they sure are stingy with them. This bowl had at most 10 strands. The thickened stock was delicious, tasting of chicken and pork, but some of the promised components seemed to be missing. No shrimp or fish cake to be found.
Vietnamese crepe (banh xeo), $7.75. The delicately crisp and lacy turmeric-stained pancake was folded over shrimp, pork, chewy squid, bean sprouts, mushrooms and onions, and is one of the better versions I've tried. Accompanied with greenery and pickled daikon and carrots, our plate only had one leaf of lettuce for wrapping. No problem getting more on request, our server said that most customers do not use the lettuce.
#22 Porridge shrimp (chao tom), $7.99. As I've yet to find any Chinese jook at local eateries, on a solo visit in November I was happy to try the rice porridge. Savory, creamy and soul-satisfying, and the fried crullers were a bonus not mentioned on the menu.
One of the things that sets this place apart is the high quality and variety of the rau tom (herb garnishes). This is diep ca (fish mint) and rau ram has also been provided regularly, alongside the more common cilantro, basil and mint. While these herbs are offered at the better places in San Jose's Little Saigon, they are not common in San Francisco nor the East Bay Viet eateries. I'm concerned that if customers do not appreciate the fresh herbs, they'll stop being served, as with the withholding of lettuce. So please enjoy them and eat your veggies.
Beignets, $5.25/6 pieces. New Orleans style fried to order, dusted with powder sugar and served with Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, they're light and excellent.
Strawberry snow ice with fresh raspberries, $5.50. This style of snow ice is actually Taiwanese in origin, but it's the perfect light ending for a meal here. Barely sweet and not that intensely flavored, adding the fresh fruit makes a big difference.
Milk tea snow ice with lychee popping pearls, $5.50. The milk tea flavor was a bit stronger, and my friends had fun with popping pearls.
Plates Com Tam
1988 Fremont Blvd
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