Good to the last drop: Forty lashes with wet noodles is easy to take at Michael Nguyen's Pho Vietnam.
Souped up at Pho Vietnam
By Paula Harris
TRY PHO VIETNAM," advised a friend who'd heard we were pining for the newly defunct Himalayan Sherpa restaurant in Glen Ellen. Julia told us she'd also been craving enticing ethnic tastes and she'd stumbled upon the Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant, in its unlikely Santa Rosa strip mall location, by chance. "It's good," she urged. "And great value."
Located in the Food 4 Less shopping center off Stony Point Road, tucked between a Western Union office and a tax services place, Pho Vietnam looks decidedly no-frills. The well-worn linoleum floor and mainly unadorned walls set a functional rather than decorative tone. There are 11 tables with glass tops over dusky-rose tablecloths, but no flowers or candles. Instead, the tables are set with various condiment sauces, including bottles of Sriracha hot chili, hoisin, and soy. Wall dispensers hold plastic soupspoons, chopsticks, and doll-sized white plastic bowls for mixing sauce concoctions.
The restaurant does a brisk take-out trade, and there was a pleasant hubbub of activity as we took our seats. The clientele appeared to be mainly Asian. The service was friendly, though a bit rushed. We ordered the Goi Cuon ($3.25) spring rolls (vegetarian version) and received three translucent rice-paper wrappers crammed with chilled vermicelli, shredded lettuce, carrots, fresh cilantro leaves, and a touch of mint. These were served with a mild creamy peanut dipping sauce. It was a cool, refreshing, and light beginning.
Pho Vietnam bills itself as a "noodle soup restaurant," and large steaming bowls (with diners hunkered over them) were in evidence on nearly every table. Each bowl contains an entire, nutritious meal. Sizes are small for $3.95, large for $4.50, and extra-large (read: kitchen sink-sized) for $5.25. The restaurant has a huge selection, but specializes in Hanoi-style beef noodle soups.
Our server recommended the Pho Tai Chin Nac (small, $3.95), a noodle soup brimming with eye round steak and well-done brisket. It was a daunting bowlful containing vermicelli in a flavorful clear beef broth, with huge thin slices of beef stacked and folded over like sandwich meat filling up the bowl. Hot and fragrant, this was probably a Vietnamese beef-lover's delight, but it was all a bit too much for us novices to handle--especially with the designated plastic soupspoon and chopsticks.
Bun Tom Thit Nuong ($5.95) was another meal-in-a-bowl. The layers of goodies began with cold vermicelli, then salad consisting of bean sprouts, thin slices of cucumber, carrots, fresh mint, and coriander. This was topped with warm strips of crisp, smoky barbecued pork, and grilled butterflied shrimp, complete with tails and flecked with chili flakes and crushed peanuts. It was a great mingling of flavors and textures, both satisfying and exotic.
Mi Xao Dom Chay ($5.50) resembled a golden bird's nest of crispy fried noodles, crowned with semi-crisp chunks of cauliflower, broccoli florets, scallions, baby sweet corn, green pepper, whole mushrooms, celery, carrots, and tofu, all lightly stir-fried in a tasty soy-based sauce.
Com Ga Nuong Xa ($4.75) was a lovely partnership of lemongrass chicken served over white sticky rice. A generous portion of tender barbecued chicken pieces was tinted slightly golden with an aromatic lemongrass-ginger marinade and decorated with fresh scallions and herbs. It came with a bowl of nuoc nam, a popular Vietnamese condiment of spicy fish sauce. Pho Vietnam does not serve beer or wine. We settled for a glass of (too strong) iced coffee with condensed milk ($1.70). There is also a selection of sodas and juices, including real lemonade.
The dessert-beverages we sampled next were unlike anything we'd experienced. The sweet sea drink Xam Ba Luong ($1.95) was an adventure in a glass. From the sugary water we fished out lots of weird and wonderful floating and sunken items, such as strands of fresh green seaweed, dried longan, barley, lotus seeds, lychees, and red dates. All it needed was a couple of sea monkeys. Unfortunately, the concoction was too cloyingly sweet to finish.
The Che Dau Xanh Banh Loc green-bean pudding drink ($1.75) was better. Moderately sweet and creamy, it tasted like a combination of rice milk and coconut flesh and contained strips of clear gelatin and small oval-shaped beans.
Julia was right. For massive servings of fresh Vietnamese cuisine at rock-bottom prices, it would be hard to beat Pho Vietnam.
Address: 711 Stony Point Road, Santa Rosa; 571-SOUP (7687)
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; take-out available
Food: Vietnamese noodle soup specialties, exotic non-alcoholic drinks
Service: Friendly though a bit rushed
Ambiance: No frills, unassuming, functional
Price: Very inexpensive; priciest item is $5.95
Wine list: None
Overall:*1/2 stars (out of 4)
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From the September 10-16, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.