The name is a mystery. The night we visited, there was just one person working the front of house at A.N.A.’s Vietnamese, and he gave an apologetic shrug when we asked.
So let it be. The decor and national cuisine are the same as its predecessor restaurant, but the new Vietnamese place on North Craig has its own character. The space is intimate, brightened by lime-green paint and stirred by rattan-style ceiling fans. A little wall-mounted religious shrine provides a visual connection to the culture behind the food. At the bar — a relic from long ago, when there was a sports bar here — are jars full of colorful powders for sweet bubble teas. The menu is brief and, befitting A.N.A.’s location in student-centric Oakland, mostly inexpensive.
Beyond the appetizers, there are just seven items: pho, banh mi, bun, chow fun, fried rice, pad Thai and Singapore noodles. All but the soup and banh mi are available with a choice of beef, chicken, pork, tofu or (for a couple bucks more) shrimp. The starters are about what you’d expect — edamame, chicken skewers and so on — but there was one item we didn’t recognize: fried pork rolls.
Fundamentally, these were like egg rolls, but that simple comparison sells them far short. A crisp wrapper held a filling that was not primarily cabbage with bits of meat, but rather minced — not ground — pork studded with carrots, wood-ear mushroom and other vegetables that added texture and flavor. And both the texture and flavor were standouts: Because the meat wasn’t ground, it had some tenderness and chewiness, while the vegetables added crunch. The flavor was much more subtle than such a meat-forward filling might suggest. The dipping sauce, a thin, clear liquid with chili flakes in it, subtly balanced sweet and heat.
Our other starter, tasty fried chicken dumplings, featured potstickers a little stouter than Japanese-style gyoza, but with more delicate wrappers than typical Chinese dumplings. Here the dipping sauce seemed to include ponzu, the Japanese combination of soy and yuzu juice, which lent citrusy notes to brighten the overall savoriness.
Banh mi, with seasoned meat, fresh herbs and veggies on baguette, reflects the influence of French colonialism on traditional Vietnamese cuisine. A.N.A.’s serves its banh mi rather impressively wrapped within a big piece of butcher paper, almost reminiscent of an Indian dosa. Within was a good, crusty baguette filled with cucumber, jalapeño and, in our case, pork. The pork was in chunks and fairly well coated with what can only described as a Vietnamese barbecue sauce: dark and sticky, a little sweet with a hint of spice. We could have gone for a bit more vegetable, but this was still a more-than-credible banh mi.
Of the non-Vietnamese items on the menu, pad Thai was a fine noodle dish, but not especially pad Thai-like. The noodles were soft and seemed more like wheat noodles than rice, and while the sauce was suitably light and scant — pad Thai should never have a pool of sauce beneath it — it lacked the lively interplay of salty, sour and sweet that defines the dish. Red peppers, while we like them in just about any noodle dish, were also not a traditional pad Thai ingredient.
Jason’s favorite noodle dish is bun, which is a bowl of rice vermicelli served with raw vegetables and aromatic herbs, a halved spring roll and a protein of choice. Alongside, he received a bowl of the same chili sauce that came with the pork rolls. When he poured it on the bun, it almost instantly coated the noodles with its subtly sweet heat, pulling together the disparate elements of the dish, whether the bites were noodle-dominated, or full of vegetable or meat. Shrimp were plentiful, sweet and succulent, and, dipped into the sauce, good enough to enjoy on their own. A.N.A.’s bun is a solid contender for best in the city.
Alas, the same couldn’t be said for the pho. The backbone of this soup is a long-cooked, clarified beef broth that is lighter than Western broths, but nonetheless suffused with flavors from each chef’s personal blend of cuts and bones. At least, that’s the premise. But the broth of our “special pho” — filled with beef, chicken and meatballs — tasted thin and weak, even after steeping in the herbs and jalapeños served, as per Vietnamese custom, on a separate plate with bean sprouts and a lime wedge. We boosted its flavor with plenty of Sriracha sauce.
With its accessible prices and overall well-executed, greatest-hits style menu, A.N.A.’s Vietnamese would serve as a good introduction to Vietnamese cui