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Banh Mi Goes Mobile: A Nom Nom Truck Review

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(Sorry, no pictures - I'm not quite at that level of food blogging...yet)

LIKE all those of us who bemoan the lack of decent Vietnamese on the Westside, the announcement a few months back of a banh mi truck was met with intrigue and anticipation.

See: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/644887

Banh mi makes good sense for a post-Kogi truck operation; its ingredients aren't difficult to take on the road and given the geography of Vietnamese food in Los Angeles, relatively isolated in either parts of the SGV or Westminster, the potential for the truck is high.

The wife and I went today, when they were set up on Olympic, near Butler. Technically, it was about two blocks away from Butler but this was a good thing since they picked a spot that was totally shaded and had a cement fence you could sit on.

The NNT is clearly going through some...transitions, given the high number of corrections and crossed-out items on their menu. No more spring rolls. Apparently, the Vietnamese coffee was out. They ran out of tofu while I was there. Etc. It was basically...a mess. I feel like they'd be better off investing in a dry erase board.

Their menu is here: http://nomnomtruck.com/menu/ but here are the basics:

A 12" banh mi = $5. Tacos (with various fillings, see below) are 1 for $2.50 (rather high) or 2 for $4 (Kogi-comparable). They also do combos, which I thought were priced well. We got the "6-inch combo" which includes a 6" banh mi (we got grilled pork) plus two tacos (we got lemongrass chicken and bbq pork) plus a drink, all for $7.

There's also a 12" combo which comes with one taco but a foot-long sandwich.

THE BANH MI w/ grilled pork was, in both our estimation, pretty good. This was NOT a haute cuisine take on the sandwich; it was a classic banh mi with all the flavors you expect: each bite gets you a pleasing crunch of warm bread (this is *key*), then a bite of vinegar from the marinated vegetables, followed by the salty, fatty goodness of grilled pork mixed in with the subtle tang of mayo.

I should say though, it's definitely not haute cuisine. That's not a criticism but I thought it'd be important to just note that what they're serving up, sandwich-wise, is quite traditional. It's not reimagining the banh mi or doing anything particularly innovative EXCEPT the delivery system.

Whatever the case, it was a good sandwich. Very good. As noted, the warm bread makes a huge difference, especially when it's around the same temp as the meat. And all the flavors I've come to expect from a banh mi were there. Exactly what you'd expect is what you get - that's a good thing.

Of course, you're also paying about double what a banh mi would run in Alhambra. And while it's true that I didn't have to drive 20+ miles to get to Alhambra, I did have to wait 30 minutes to order and get the food. This is an aside but I do find it interesting that while the conventional taco trucks are meant to make food affordable, the haute mobiles go in the reverse direction. I'm not complaining, mind you, but I do think it's an interesting reversal of the traditional taco truck model.

Speaking of tacos...

THE VIETNAMESE TACOS were not impressive. They felt like an afterthought, ala "hey, we should do some fusion tacos too since everyone else is." Hear me out on this for a moment - partly what makes a good taco-truck-taco work is a combination of heat, greasiness and filling. I feel like Kogi, for example, gets this. Their tacos may use different fillings from a Mexican truck but they understand the essence of what makes a good taco.

In comparison, the Nom Nom tacos seem more like a formula - take Vietnamese fillings, place in tortilla, voila! Either there was a lack of effort to really perfect a better fusion OR Vietnamese flavors don't work in a taco. I'd hate to think it was the latter; I think the potential is there but what I tasted didn't achieve that.

It's not that the fillings were bad - the lemongrass chicken was very lemongrass-y. The BBQ pork was sweet and salty (perhaps a little too sweet). The vegetables they include add texture and flavor contrasts. But the sum of the whole just didn't feel very taco-y. It might have worked on a plate of rice but not in a tortilla.

FINAL VERDICT: I think Nom Nom makes a valuable contribution to the new mobile movement. I think their sandwich is pretty solid; I'd be tempted to go out to them again if they're in the neighborhood (I'd just get a foot-long and skip the tacos). I do think their tacos could use some tinkering and while I think their execution on their banh mi is quite good, it might be interesting to come out with an additional sandwich which is more left-of-field. (Speaking of which, they have a "Deli Special" sandwich which I didn't try but it sounded intriguing.

They should also consider fixing their menu issue; it's just confusing to decipher despite it being a fairly limited menu.

I'm an educator by profession so if I had to grade it, I'd give Nom Nom a solid B, maybe a B+ if I were feeling really generous (I have had the reputation of being an easy grader).

BONUS ROUND: The Get Shaved Truck

Nom Nom and the Get Shaved ice truck (http://www.getshavedice.com/) teamed up for this location and of course, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try them too.

To make a long story short, they're not about to negate my memory of Matsumoto (North Shore Oahu) but they did seem to capture what makes Hawaiian style shaved ice so good. To me, it's about the texture of really finely shaved ice (finer than the Taiwanese equivalent) that melts instantly when it hits your mouth. Quite lovely, even if the risk of brainfreeze is high.

The flavoring is pretty much what you'd expect - I do NOT recommend the lychee (way too cloying). I thought the cherry was good, my wife said, "this tastes like cough syrup" but hey, artificial cherry is usually like that to some degree. What I didn't try but what they have are things like sweet cream (I'm assuming condensed milk) and pickled plum sauce (plus powdered pickled plum) for those who like their Hawaiian flavors real old school.

Plus, no line = big bonus.

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  1. Beat me to it, I was just about to post mine. So I'll tag on to yours and not create a separate thread. LOL! You and I just about had the same impression, but you were much more articulate.

    Would there finally be a decent Bahn Mi sandwich on the Westside? Would I pay an arm and a leg for the privilege of having a decent version. I was soon to find out. It was at Olympic and Purdue today near my work, perfect chance to try them before they get too popular and overwhelmed by crowds. Got there a quarter after 12 and there were already 10 people in line ahead of me.

    Took about 10-15 minutes to place my order and another 5 to get it. I ordered a 6 inch combo with two tacos and a drink. Got the deli special for the sandwich and the bbq pork and lemon grass chicken for the tacos. Also upgraded my drink to the Vietnamese iced coffee. Took everything back to the office and settled in.

    I really liked the bread, good crust that crunched through to softness under. Crust wasn’t hard and sharp like Lee’s could be in cutting your mouth, but not super soft and pillowy too. I had trepidations beforehand about the bread and I was pleasantly surprised how much I liked it. The sandwich had a thin smear of pate on one side, very light mayo on the other side, one small sliver of jalapeno, paper thin slice of cucumber, a slice each of the head cheese, ham and pork loaf, topped with small stack of the pickled daikon, carrots and sprigs of cilantro. I took a small bite of all the ingredients by themselves. All tasted good, liked the pickledness of the veggies. Overall the sandwich was pretty good but I wished there were more vegetables and a little heavier on the pate. I really couldn’t taste the pate and the pickled vegetables didn’t quite come through cleanly to balance out the meat. Still this was solid.

    The meats in the tacos were juicy and both had a nice char on several of the pieces. Each taco had some of the pickled daikon and carrots with sprigs of cilantro. The lemongrass flavor was very strong in the chicken. There was plenty of meat on both tacos and some chunks were spilling out as I ate. Here I also wished there was a little more of the pickled veggies to balance it. My biggest complaint about the tacos was that I wished the tortillas were grilled a little longer, they were a touch on the flabby raw side, nothing bad but a little longer on the grill and the corn taste would have come through better. But that could be just a personal preference since I like my tortillas with a toasty char normally.

    The Vietnamese iced coffee was pretty basic. Overall I’d say the food is worth it if the truck is nearby, but it’s not worth driving across town and chasing it. The price was reasonable given the amount of food. Mind you, it doesn’t beat the great deals at places like Che Cali, my fave Bahn Mi place, but I also don’t have to drive all over the place.

    My biggest complaint about the truck would be their lack of organization. Standing in line watching them take orders and prep inside the truck, it really struck me that they didn’t seem to have a lot of food service or food truck experience. Seemed like they were also unfamiliar with their own menu. Lots of wasted movement slowing things down, miscommunication and lack of defined duties creating even more delay. For having four people working hard inside that small truck, they weren’t moving things along very well.

    Examples of lack of experience and how it can be really annoying. The menu states one taco for $2.50 and two for $4. My co-worker ordered two tacos, two different meats and was told it was $5. When questioned, they were firm that the two for $4 was only if you got two of the same kind. Which is not stated on the menu and actually irritating and bad customer service in my opinion.

    My order, they overcharged me and I didn’t catch till after I walked away and didn’t bother raising a fuss since the line had gotten long. I chalked it up to a tax on my carelessness. My combo of 6 inch, two tacos and a drink was suppose to be $7, upgrade to coffee drink for another $1. Total to be $8. They charged me $9.50. $7 for the combo and $2.50 for the standalone price of the iced coffee.

    Your number is called out when the order is ready and the food is just plopped in the window. You actually have to ask them to wrap up the tacos if you want it to go. The sandwich is already wrapped up regardless. There are plastic bags just stuffed haphazardly under the pickup window and you’re supposed to figure out yourself that you grab a bag if you need it.

    When my order was ready, there was no coffee. When asked, three people stared at each other and said, he needs a coffee, can someone get it? There was then some dazed movement and it took a while to get it to me. Now keep in mind, there was a huge two gallon jug of prepared coffee sitting right at the pick up window. Prepping my coffee meant, grabbing a cup, slinging some ice into it, pour the coffee in and slap a lid on it. An operation that should have taken one person 10-15 seconds as soon as I mentioned my missing coffee. Not several moments of people looking at each other not knowing who should be doing what.

    Are any of these egregious? Of course not. I just think the lack of experience really shows and anyone going should be prepared for that. To reiterate, I’d say the food is good enough quality at a good value especially given the lack of bahn mi options on the Westside. If it’s in the area, definitely give it a shot.

    Pic of the food at my twitter account, handle of chownoir. I didn’t take good close ups though. Website of truck is http://nomnomtruck.com/

    Postscript, the shaved ice truck was also there, I got a small. But since I have absolutely no background to judge shaved ice, I won’t weigh in on its merits. Just that I liked it and the ice texture was very fine as I expected it. A co-worker who just got back from Hawaii said it was comparable to the several he had. Website for that truck http://www.getshavedice.com/Home.html

    5 Replies
    1. re: Jase

      Jase: the more the merrier! More importantly, you did much more of the descriptive heavy-lifting than I did in terms of breaking down what was actually in the sandwich. I missed that they put pate in there but I'm sure I tasted it.

      I didn't realize their "2 for $4" was for "same tacos only." No offense but that's kind of bullsh--, especially if it's not already made clear on the menu. I guess that's another line of masking tape.

      1. re: odub

        Yeah, I thought the two fer was kind of bs too. As I said, the whole operation just smacks of inexperienced friends who thought it would be fun to put a different twist on a foodie truck . They are well meaning but need some seasoning under their belt and a clearer understanding on how to run this type of business on all fronts. I wish them a lot of luck because it would be nice to have this type of option on the westside.

        The pate was a very thin small smear that didn't even reach any of the edges of my smaller 6 inch. It was more like a thin line in the middle. Not surprised if you didn't see it or taste it if you weren't looking for it. It would have helped the balance more if it was heavier.

        Good point about the pricing, again you articulated much better what I was thinking. Strange how trucks are usually lower priced but this wave of higher end trucks are charging much more than a store front.

        1. re: Jase

          I've been wanting to try a Banh Mi for a while now - and living on the Westside, I don't want to drive to the SGV for a sandwich, so I'm very curious to try the Nom Nom Truck out. My only question - and excuse me if this is dumb - are there any fish/seafood sauces on the sandwich or tacos? I don't eat fish or seafood, and would be really upset if I went through the ordeal of going and getting one, and I couldn't eat it...

          1. re: mdpilam

            with vietnamese food, you can bet on fish sauce being used in most marinades

            1. re: mdpilam

              Typically we don't season the banh mi with fish sauce. Some places may dress it with a seasoning sauce such as Maggi. Not sure if nnt does.

              As for the marinades, again it really depends on what is the meat filling. If it's thit nuong (bbq pork), there probably is some fish sauce used.

              I've enclosed our recipe of thit nuong (bbq pork)

              http://ravenouscouple.blogspot.com/20...

      2. Hi odub, Jase,

        Nice reports, thanks. :) It sounds like they're still getting up to speed and their inexperience is showing. It's nice to know that the bread they're using still has a nice crunch without being stale. Did it taste pretty fresh overall?

        I'd be curious how well their bread holds up after say, a full day (or two of traveling around). Fingers crossed they sell out limited quantities to keep their bread quality as fresh as possible (restocking every morning or multiple times a day from a good bakery).

        1. i REALLY enjoyed the nom nom truck food but HATED the entire experience i had to go through to get it. the line was slow moving and long the first time i went. They ran out of spring rolls. luckily they still had tofu or i would have cried after waiting 45 min for to order. they over charged me as well, but i said something and was then charged the correct price of $7 for the combo. i really loved the food though i had nothing to compare it to. i liked the taco (they made me a tofu one) more than the sandwich, as i felt there wasn't much tofu on the sandwich itself. anyway, i really liked it but would i wait 45 min to eat it again? no freaking way.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Clyde

            THeir online menu no longer says they carry spring rolls and on the printed menu on the truck, spring rolls are just straight up crossed out. My guess: they're not offering them again.

            As for the wait - I think this is going to be an issue with any new truck that draws people on the basis of novelty. But with Nom Nom, it's also that they seem shorthanded by at least one person - from what I could tell, there were 3-4 people running it but the order taker ducked out to help the preparers at times, thus keeping people waiting in line just to order. It's not terribly efficient, especially when you have people queued up.

            Again, I'll chalk that up to growing pains but it would be an issue in the long run.

            1. re: Clyde

              I thought the sandwich was OK. Probably the best Banh Mi on the Westside (not saying much). I got the Thit Nuong and thought it was OK. I had a hard time telling if it was pork or chicken. Not usually a good sign. If it was Grilled Pork, it was missing the carmelization that is crucial to good Thit Nuong. Really light on the veggies and NO jalepeno. The bread was decent, but not amazing. The taco wasn't much. The Lemongrass chicken had nice flavor, but the whole taco concept was an afterthought. The tortilla seemed like a run of the mill tortilla. As a mexican married to a vietnamese person, get a good tortilla!

              My advice to NomNom...trucks are already jumping the shark, but good trucks will survive. Put more of an emphasis on the ingredients and you will be fine. I heard that the family that started Lee's Sandwiches started as a truck.

              They were parked in front of a chocolate shop that was very good. Lemongrass chocolate was delicious. And that was two flavors I didn't think would go together. The people there were very nice. They invited us to eat there. That was smart because we ended up buying $30 worth of chocolate.

              1. re: bsquared2

                I think these are some excellent points by bsquared2. The thing that I keep contemplating is that we've all complained "there's no good banh mi on the WS" and so NNT fills a gap but it doesn't do it with the same efficiency as, say, a Sawtelle storefront that would be 1) in a fixed location, 2) capable of serving sandwiches up faster than the truck can. So in the absence of that kind of competition, NNT fills the niche but over the long term, I feel like it - and any of these new haute trucks - would serve themselves well to offer up something unique that goes beyond just providing [name food style here] to [geographic region lacking in said style].

            2. i want to add to my post...
              i luckily didn't wait in line for this today, a generous co-worker did the deed for me and there was no line as the truck just got here. so, the food this time is not so great. my tofu tacos and sandwich are SO DRY! so was my coworkers pork. this is not how it was the first time i ate it. too bad it's gone downhill so quickly! maybe it's an off day? i really loved it the first time i ate it. this time, not really impressed.

              1. Got to try the banh mi from Nom Nom at 5900 Wilshire today. Got there just before noon, so I was fourth in line. Yeah the sandwiches are cheaper and better in the OC and the SGV, but for the westside, it's good stuff. I had a bite of the lemon grass chicken and the Vietnamese deli special (made of special ham and headcheese, etc) delish for this banh mi deprived westsider.

                But I really liked the Get Shaved Ice Truck. I think mainlanders will never get that its really "shave" ice with no "d", And I think they get it, too. The menu does say "shave" ice. Actually this ice is shaved finer than anything you'll find on the North Shore, and help me not miss my favorites in Honolulu too much, Tropicana and Waiola.

                It comes with all the fixings, like ice cream, azuki bean and even li hing mui sprinklings. You can pick up to three flavors of syrup, including POG (Passion, Orange, Guava), etc.

                It won't be the bargain you find in Hawaii, but when shave ice is so rare, you're just happy it's here. $4.00 for large and $4.50 for large with ice cream. And Get Shaved Ice does it well. Not to pick on ODUB, but frankly I don't understand why people like Matsumoto's so much. Aoki's down the street is just as good. And neither hold a candle to the best of Honolulu.

                Back to Get Shaved. The owner really gets it regarding the art of shave ice, really shaving it fine. And in making his own syrups.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Ogawak

                  MILK was doing shaved ice on the sidewalk for a while (at least on the weekends) with house-made syrups and fresh fruit toppings. IIRC, it was $3 with one flavor, $3.50 with two. Not sure if they are still doing it. And you are right: I don't get the shave ice vs. shaved ice thing. It's ice that's shaved from a block of ice. Shave ice makes no sense to me...

                  1. re: soniabegonia

                    "Shave Ice" is Hawaiian pigin talk. I guess they dropped the "D" somewhere a while back. You're really "local" (Hawaiian) when you say "shave ice". By the same token, you're really a mainlander when you say "shaved".

                  2. re: Ogawak

                    I think the only thing is that they seem to miss the point on a couple important aspects.

                    Grilled pork should be barbecued. When it doesn't have that carmelization, it misses the point. That is a very important part to the cuisine. Maybe it was grilled on a griddle? It isn't a Cheese Steak. I did like the flavor of the Lemongrass Chicken. If they made Lemongrass Beef, like Nhu Lan, that would be a good idea.

                    Go to a mexican bakery and get some killer tortillas. Bad tortillas can ruin a taco. Tacos aren't just about throwing some meat in a tortilla. I know, I"m half-Mexican ;)

                    I think spring rolls are a really good idea. I was bummed that they stopped carrying them. Have you ever been to Brodard? Those ladies can crank out the spring rolls. NomNom has to figure out how to speed up the line and spring rolls are also easy to eat.

                    Please see attached for my idea of the next wave of Banh Mi shops.

                    Kogi keeps beating all the other trucks because they owner has restaurant experience and they understand the fusion part of it. As there is more competition with the trucks, the need to have amazing food will outweigh a "high concept". Vietnamese tacos? Sounds good to me. I've always thought that Vietnamese grilled meats would lend themselves to good tacos. BUT, you have to get the top-notch ingredients and put out the effort to make an amazing taco, not just a tortilla with meat in it.

                    1. re: bsquared2

                      Maybe, Nom Nom has picked up their game since last year, but they're on the Food Network show, Great Food Truck Race, and they're running away with it and they are the clear favorites to win it all.