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Located on West Camelback at the former Tu Do II location, the restaurant has been remodeled. It now boasts a red-and-white linoleum-tiled floor and blush-tinged walls. Since opening in early August, Pho Bang has been immensely popular with the Vietnamese community. Non-Asian customers are still the exception, but as word gets out, I predict this will change.
Pho Bang's professionalism is readily apparent at every turn. The menu is concise compared to those at some "authentic" Vietnamese restaurants, even though it lists 79 food items, 26 beverages (including imported and domestic beer and wine) and 3 desserts. It has been distilled to contain only the tried and true--dishes with known appeal to Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese customers alike.
That said, do not get the wrong idea. This is not a menu that has been watered down for American tastes. Rest assured, this is the real stuff: bun (cold rice vermicelli), pho (beef-and-rice-noodle soup), mi xao (egg noodles), bo (beef dishes). There is just enough usual and exotic fare to please both novices and experts in Vietnamese cuisine.
Hot and sour fish soup in a fire pot (#79) is probably the most challenging dish I sample. It is wonderful--reminiscent of both Thai and Chinese soups, but unlike anything I've ever tasted. Catfish is the fish in question, hacked into pieces, complete with bones and skin. Other ingredients include quartered fresh tomatoes, stalks of baby celery, Thai basil, bean sprouts and pineapple. The result is a light and sweet soup, flavored, but not overpowered, by the slightly musky taste of the catfish. With rice, it could easily serve as a satisfying meal for two.
But why stop with soup, when so much else entices? The table-grilled shrimp and beef (#35) is highly recommended, in part because Pho Bang's staff makes what is often a real production into a civilized experience.
Here's the drill. A gas-powered grill is delivered to your table. Swirl a spoonful or two of melted butter onto it. Select halved raw shrimp or rare beef slices and, with your chopsticks, place them on the grill where they'll sizzle-cook in no time. To eat, peel a triangle of rice paper from the pile, add lettuce, mint, cilantro or cucumber, some beef or shrimp, roll the whole thing up and dip into nuoc cham. Voila. C'est fini. C'est magnifique. (The French are very big on Vietnamese cuisine. They spent more time there than we did, under more peaceful conditions.)
Beef lovers will also not want to miss the sauteed beef cubes with salad (#31). There's nothing scary about this one. It is simply cubes of beef and grilled onion, served sizzling on an iron-skillet platter. A leaf lettuce, tomato-and-onion salad marinated with a rice-vinegar dressing and wedges of lime arrive on the side. Squeeze some lime into a little sauce dish, add a shake of salt and pepper, then use this as a dipping sauce for the beef cubes. Snag some lettuce or a piece of tomato with your chopsticks and eat it with the beef. Zowie, that's good. In the less-exotic offerings, Pho Bang scores equally high. I would recommend any of the bun dishes (#7 through #10), but then, I always do, for this cold-noodle-and-salad meal for one never ceases to charm. In particular, I recommend the bun cha gio thit nuong (#10), which features bits of grilled pork and chopped spring rolls atop cold rice vermicelli atop a layer of cucumber and lettuce. Pour the "special sauce," a.k.a. nuoc cham, over the whole mixture, toss with your chopsticks and eat.
You can definitely go with the pho here. Pho Bang serves 15 different variations of Hanoi-style rice-noodle soup. I confess I'm stuck on #24, pho tai, which is simply thin-sliced beef and rice noodles in a glistening fragrant broth. If you like your beef pink, ask for it on the side. Your server will bring you a plate of rare beef slices which you cook to proper pinkness by placing into your hot soup. Pho is fantastic this way. Toss in bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, fresh basil and a squeeze of lime and you're all set to slurp on this any-time-of-day meal. Other familiar dishes will also please your palate. Chicken with lemon grass is nicely spiced and, with rice, the perfect portion for one. Be sure to order another dish if you plan to share. Taquitolike cha gio (fried spring or "imperial" rolls), delicate goi cuon (unfried rice-paper rolls containing shrimp) and crisp and peanuty goi tom (marinated shrimp salad with raw vegetables) are all excellent.
In fact, the only dish I'm not too wild about is a soft egg-noodle dish with vegetables and assorted meats (#41). It lacks the zest of the Chinese version of this dish and, as such, is just too bland to make much impact on my taste buds.