I’ve walked by this place dozens of times and never noticed it. A sudden and nasty squall on a Saturday afternoon – burdened with bags of chickens, and with a car and chauffeur parked many blocks away – I found myself scampering up the steps of Co Cham.
Star anise and ginger met me. So did a grinning kid with a menu tucked under a skinny arm. I was in a smart space of pinky-red and buttercream walls, lino floors and glass topped wooden tables. Most of the 24 chairs were filled with noodle-soup slurpers facing steaming bowls of pho and platters heaped with the usual accessories for Vietnam’s most celebrated soup. A few were working their way through plates of bun – grilled beef, chicken, pork, or sausage on rice vermicelli, topped with crushed peanuts and sided with nuoc cham, served with cucumber salads invigorated with a rough chop of basil. Half a dozen others were queuing at the sandwich counter.
There was a free table by the window, and I snagged it. I called my son, napping in the car – so keen to practice his driving skills he had agreed to ferry his mother on Saturday morning rounds – and offered him banh mi (a Vietnamese style baguette sandwich, and a principal menu item at Co Cham.) On a good length of fresh baguette stuffed with a combo of pork-based cold cuts, which he chose over sardines or shredded pork skin. It came filled in with sprigs of cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon, and (“spicy OK?”) chunks of hot red chilies. Cost: $2.25, which explains the boys with backpacks in the banh mi queue.
I had soup ($5.95), one of the blackboard specials. It boasted big chunks of soft duck, rice noodles, pak choy, roughly chopped coriander and scallions, in a well-seasoned, aromatic and slightly sweet broth.
It didn’t need much doctoring but still, one is programmed to play. I tore up strips of basil and tossed them in, a handful of sprouts, a squeeze of lime. I cracked open a red chili and disgorged its seeds.
Another visit, another soup. This one off the regular menu, crowded with rare beef, Chinese mushroom, vermicelli, beef shank, Vietnamese ham. Soups come in one size – medium, I suppose you’d call them – and most cost $6.50.
The dunking sauce was dreary, but the rice paper rolls were not. Fat, fresh, the vermicelli slightly warm, the shrimp not rubbery, the pork tender, the lettuce dark green, and the addition of Thai basil welcome. Their deep-fried cousins were also a cut above – thicker than the usual Vietnamese spring rolls, these were seriously meaty, with chunks of shrimp, shredded carrot, radish and mushroom, furnished with lettuce and basil in which to tuck them and with which to perk them up.
Service here is anything but offhand. The family that runs Co Cham is a friendly bunch.
If you like Vietnamese tapioca desserts, there’s one of those. We tried the crème brûlée, and were astonished to find the cool custard light, wiggly, with a thin, crackling crust. My son had ice cream.
Then he chauffeured his mother and her chickens home.