01/13/2006 — Since pho essentially is the national dish of Vietnam, a Vietnamese restaurant with pho in the name had better serve good noodle soup.
Pho (pronounced "fah") is best known for its fragrant broth, silky rice noodles and side plate of fresh basil sprigs, bean sprouts, limes wedges and hot green pepper.
If some of these components go missing, it's generally a failed attempt at pho.
After a couple of visits to Pho Vietnam, a utilitarian designed pho shop that opened in October on West Overland Road, I couldn't help but notice some inconsistencies with its noodle soup. On one visit, it was disappointing; on another, it was just right.
One time, the broth on the pho tai-bo vien ($6.50) was pale and lacking a proper beef and star anise kick, and the side plate was void of fresh basil—a major foul for a pho shop. Thick slices of beef meatball, beef brisket and chewy strands of tripe (which I asked them to leave out, but got anyway) came in a large bowl with thin, rice noodles and weak beef broth.
To the contrary, the bun thit nuong ($5.95), another popular noodle dish in Vietnam, was an outstanding tangle of rice vermicelli, pork shreds, cilantro, mint leaves, cucumber, lettuce and crushed peanuts, served with a small dish of nuoc cham, a golden fish sauce pocked with shredded carrot, garlic and chili flakes.
Without the meat or condiment, this dish passes for vegetarian food (there's not much for veg-heads on this menu).
We tagged on an order of cha gio ($5.75); four crispy Vietnamese-style egg rolls stuffed with ground pork, bean thread noodles, carrot, ginger and black mushrooms.
Per tradition, lettuce leaves (even though it was just iceberg) and thinly sliced cucumber were there for wrapping around these crunchy logs. So was a squeezable bottle of Sriracha hot chili sauce (red rooster) and nuoc cham for dipping.
We asked about dessert and were told the restaurant didn't serve any sweet finishes, which is strange, considering that Vietnamese culture adores cakes and pastries. (Ho Chi Minh was a French-trained pastry chef before becoming a Communist leader.)
We settled for hot cups of dark roast Vietnamese coffee ($1.50), sweetened by condensed milk.
On another visit, the pho tai ($6.50) was right on the money with its beefy, spice-scented broth and plenty of sliced beef brisket (turning from red to pink in the hot stock) and tender but not mushy rice noodles.
The side plate boasted fresh sprigs of red-stemmed Thai basil, sliced jalapeno, cut limes and crunchy bean sprouts.
Everything came together impeccably in this bowl. It was like a pho home run, versus a pho strikeout on the previous visit.
We also enjoyed (but weren't blown away) by the steamed rice with Asian sausage and pork cake ($6.25). Fragrant broken rice was crowned with mild grilled sausage and a steamed pork cake (think egg and noodle strata). A splash of nuoc cham brought the flavor wheel full circle on this typical dish of Saigon.
The Vietnamese spring rolls ($2.95 for two) were akin to Thai fresh rolls. Soft rice paper sheets came rolled tightly around briny little shrimp, shredded pork, mint and basil leaves, bean sprouts and rice noodles. The spicy fermented black bean sauce, flecked with roasted garlic, was an especially good condiment, playing well with all the flavors and textures in the rolls.
I never found out why the restaurant doesn't serve pho ga (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup), mostly because our server gave us a blank stare when I asked about it.
Pho Vietnam has much potential, once it can consistently produce a great bowl of pho. After all, isn't that what a pho shop is all about?
James Patrick Kelly is The Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.