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For years after I graduated from college, I spent way too much time jonesing to go back.
Somewhere along the line, though, I stopped obsessively ordering grad school catalogs and ditched the idea of taking on more student loans. And, hey, look where I ended up: in a job where I still have deadlines and plenty of homework.
It's kind of funny, then, to find myself secretly envying college students again. But this time around, I'm not wishing I were joining them for class — just for dinner.
4920 W. Thunderbird Road
Glendale, AZ 85306
Specifically, I'm thinking of a great little Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Avina. It's right across from ASU West in Glendale, and if I lived, worked, or went to school in that 'hood, I'd be a regular there.
A few things set Pho Avina apart from the usual bare-bones, strip-mall ethnic joint. The cheerful décor (clusters of fake fruit, and a smoke-emitting dragon statue, among other things) is one; the exhaustive menu is another.
I love interactive dining, and this place serves a variety of roll-your-own spring rolls. Vegetarian dishes are plentiful as well — it's surprising that more Vietnamese restaurants haven't caught on to vegetarian dining. Beverages run the gamut from fresh limeade and strong iced coffee with condensed milk (alas, they don't let you mix it yourself), to more exotic stuff, like a tamarind drink topped with roasted peanuts, as well as boba, that sweet concoction served with a double-wide straw to suck up the chewy tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup. And there are a dozen banh mi, notoriously cheap and tasty Vietnamese subs that aren't as ubiquitous as they should be.
Besides the variety, I was impressed with some of the presentations; garnishes like carrot slices and fresh mint leaves were done up into pretty arrangements to jazz up simple dishes, and the standard Vietnamese herb assortment (basil, cilantro, and spearmint) was very fresh. I loved the homemade sauces, too — I could taste that they were homemade before I even bothered to take a closer look at the menu. Fish sauce had extra zing, and peanut sauce tasted somehow brighter and lighter than usual. Chili oil was also homemade, and all of the sauces were available for purchase.
Some of Pho Avina's spring rolls (known elsewhere as summer rolls) were served freshly rolled, like the classic goi cuon, with shrimp, sliced pork, herbs, rice vermicelli noodles, carrots and sprouts wrapped in a translucent jacket of moist rice paper. A tofu version also came that way.
But other variations had rice noodles and rice paper on the side, such as grilled pork sausage, or shrimp paste cooked on sticks of sugarcane. For those, my friends and I got a kick out of making our own rolls. A crisp, turmeric-yellow banh xeo — a fat rice flour crepe filled with pork, shrimp, and sprouts — was another DIY appetizer, paired with fresh lettuce. Hot crepe, cool lettuce, and tangy fish sauce are a dynamic, don't-miss flavor combination.
If you can imagine the contents of a goi cuon — minus the wrapper and rice noodles, and tossed with crunchy jellyfish and shredded lotus — that was the gist of the lotus salad. Topped with fish sauce and crushed peanuts, it was summery and light, and definitely big enough to share. Banh mi, those sandwiches I mentioned, were strangely refreshing, too. Something about sliced jalapeño and fresh cilantro lightens up even rich barbecued pork. My only hang-up was the rolls: fresh and soft one day, somewhat dry another day.
For noodle lovers, Pho Avina has dozens of choices, including rice vermicelli stew, clear rice noodles, and egg noodles. I was pleased with the pho (rice vermicelli in rich beef broth, topped with sliced beef, meatballs, or even tripe), one of the better versions in town. Bun (rice vermicelli tossed with crisp veggies) wasn't bad, either, but the cha gio (mini pork egg rolls) on top of it were somewhat bland. One of my dining companions liked the bun with tofu, though. Sautéed chicken, carrots, onion, and broccoli on a nest of fried egg noodles was also pretty mild for my taste, although I liked the texture of the noodles soaked in sauce.
Rice dishes fill out the rest of the menu. Lemongrass sauté, with shrimp, carrots, onions, red pepper, and bamboo shoots, contained a fearless (and delicious) amount of lemongrass; there was a tofu version of this on the menu, plus similar veggie sautés containing ginger or cashews or chile. Curry chicken stew was one of the tastiest entrées I tried here, a robust but not too spicy curry-coconut gravy filled with chicken, carrots, and chunks of roasted potato. Again, this could be ordered as a meatless dish. Meanwhile, there was no veggie equivalent to Avina's special catfish, fillets of crispy, batter-fried catfish drizzled with sweet red chile sauce and served atop sautéed red pepper, onion, and garlic. It was good, but not as memorable as its name implied.
One of my regular dining companions is amused by the unusual desserts I tend to order at Asian restaurants — and, of course, she lets me do all the eating. This time around, I tried to spare her from durian ice cream and agar jelly with mung beans. Instead, I ordered fried bananas with coconut ice cream, and Vietnamese rice pudding. Well, I still don't think she took a bite, but my other friends did, and we all agreed they were pretty tasty, especially the former. The latter was quirkier than expected, with sticky rice and black-eyed peas mixed into the creamy, coconut-y pudding. My taro boba drink was like dessert, too, a sweet, pastel purple shake with lots of tapioca.
From beginning to end, the cheap, homey food at Pho Avina hits the spot — whether you're enrolled or not.