A steaming bowl of Drunken Noodles had just arrived at our table when the owner of Nikki’s Banh Mi in Portsmouth came over to say hello.
We asked if she was the woman in the restaurant’s mural, which also features elephants, a water buffalo, a Buddha and a Banh Mi sandwich.
“Yes, that’s me,” Nikki Nachampassak said. “And that’s my son and grandson riding the water buffalo.”
Nachampassak’s family emigrated to the Seacoast from Laos when she was a small child.
She brings her familial touch to the Laotian and Vietnamese dishes she creates daily. But also under the same roof is Darleen’s Sub & Pizza, which Nachampassak has owned since 2015 after taking over from Darleen Rahn and learning the fine art of steak bombs and American chop suey.
I remember sending my hubby out for a late-night Darleen’s steak and cheese a few days before our second child was born in 1990. Boy (or girl, in this case), it hit the spot.
Nikki’s Banh Mi/Darleen’s Sub and Pizza relocated about a year ago from its longtime location on Islington Street to a bigger space just up the street.
The menu is fun — noodle dishes, curry, plenty of apps and lots of Banh Mi, which is basically the submarine sandwich of Vietnam (and don’t forget Darleen’s top picks, which include everything from a chicken parm sub to an Italian cold cut to a pepperoni pizza).
My partner went to the counter to order and directly disobeyed instructions to get the lemongrass pork Banh Mi (veggie, tofu and pork liver pate are other options). We’d already chosen Korean beef barbecue for the Drunken Noodles and the point of ordering the pork was to try DIFFERENT things.
It all worked out, as life usually does.
The Drunken Noodles ($12.95) were enough to split, and we did, pushing the giant bowl back and forth across the table as we munched away.
The rice noodles were silky. No other word for it.
There was sweetness, vinegar and a little bit of chili. And the beef. Oh my.
“Melt-in-your-mouth,” is how my dining partner described it.
“It has that classic wok smoky flavor,” he said. “The wok-hai.”
The translation of this Cantonese phrase is “breath of the wok.”
For the veggie lovers, there was plenty of red and green peppers, string beans, carrot, onion and Thai basil.
But what about the “drunken” part? There is no alcohol in the ingredients.
There are several explanations about the name, with a leading contender being that the hearty dish is often eaten after a night of drinking.
Nikki’s has a full bar, but it was mid-afternoon, and we had not yet imbibed. Still, I could see the logic of this origin story.
The appetizers were next to arrive. We were cool with that.
The egg rolls (five for $6.25) capitalized on crunch.
“They have a fragrance — sweet Thai basil,” my dining companion said. “Familiar and yet unlike any egg roll/spring roll I’ve ever had.”
We also chose the crab rangoon (five for $8.25), which were the most substantial I have ever tasted.
“Somehow way beyond the average cream cheese and scallion filling,” my companion said.
We’d also considered the chicken wings, pork and leek dumplings and scallion pancakes. But there is only so much room in a food reviewer’s stomach.
The Banh Mi was our “dessert.”
Served on French bread with pickled carrots, cucumbers, daikon, cilantro and homemade mayo, the Bulgogi marinade (“fire meat” in Korean) on the beef blended right in. The daikon (a mild radish) gave the dish a further bite, with the cilantro and cucumber freshening everything up.
A couple of big, tough guys were sitting next to us and ordered mango Boba “bubble” tea ($4.95), which just goes to show that everybody likes tapioca, black tea, milk, sugar and some ice in a tall glass. The draw is that you get to pop the tapioca “bubbles” between your teeth. Nikki’s offers 19 tea flavors.
Maybe for our next visit I will go for a Darleen’s steak and cheese, re-living the days before the arrival of our dear daughter.