Pho 101 A Crash Course
Photo by Anne Fishbein
A friend of mine has eaten at the new Pho Café in Silver Lake a couple times a week since it opened a few months ago. It’s that kind of place — an easy, no-fuss, whatever-you’re-wearing, bring-the-baby neighborhood canteen. The long, narrow storefront has a sleek, minimal design with some particularly smart touches: hanging light fixtures that look like ingeniously rigged fish bowls; Naugahyde wainscotting; bright-orange molded-plastic chrome-legged chairs. The floor is gray concrete. The plates are Chinatown Melmac. A few pots of epidendrons, Mexican orchids, add spatters of bright red.
As we sit here one twilight in spring, both doors are open, front and back. Through the front, we see a royal-blue Dumpster overloaded with turquoise plastic garbage sacks; through the back the lacy purple blossoms of a flowering jacaranda. But it’s hardly a hidden treasure — around us are young couples, a few solo diners, a family with older kids. And I’ve already run into people I know, including the L.A. Weekly’s film editor, just back from Cannes. The food here, light, fresh and made-to-order, will no doubt help ease his jet lag.
A long counter separates the dining room from the kitchen, where several cooks chop vegetables, deep-fry egg rolls, boil noodles and ladle up the beef soup. Pho Café’s menu, compared to other well-known Vietnamese restaurants like Pho 79 downtown or Golden Deli in San Gabriel, is pared-down — basic text that’s easily contained on a one-page photocopy. Even those not conversant in Vietnamese cuisine will find it accessible and unintimidating.
Cha gio, egg rolls, are fat 4-inch tubes filled with ground chicken, shrimp and wood mushrooms. (A vegetarian version contains tofu, taro and vermicelli rice noodles.) They’re served with a plate of “vegetables” — lettuce and herbs, essentially — and the classic sweetened fish sauce with shredded carrots. As opposed to the heaps of greenery you get in many other Vietnamese places, the “vegetables” here are rather minimal — two and a half small leaves of red-leaf lettuce for three egg rolls, for example, no bean sprouts, and sometimes just one sprig each of mint and shiso. (I suppose, though, you can always ask for more.) The drill: Take a lettuce leaf, stick an egg roll on it, add herbs, a slice of cucumber and maybe some of the shredded carrot from the sauce. Roll it all up in the lettuce — most likely you’ll have a shaggy, barely coherent assemblage — and dip this into the fish sauce. Eat. What you bite into is simultaneously cold and hot, juicy and crisp, cooked and raw, sweet and savory, virtuous freshness and deep-fat-fried sin. In other words, one of the world’s great food sensations.
Goi cuon, uncooked spring rolls, provide a tamer, quieter dining experience. Filled with charbroiled beef, shrimp, noodles and fresh herbs, these come with a sweet, thick plum sauce and the fresh herbs. (A vegetarian version has tofu and mushrooms in place of the beef and shrimp.)
The most appealing appetizer — one every bit as unwieldy as cha gio — is the banh xeo, a crunchy, chewy bright-yellow crepe incorporating shrimp, beef, mushrooms and bean sprouts into a turmeric-yellow flour batter. This is wrapped along with the usual lettuce and herbs in just-moistened rice paper. Wrap it up quickly, because shortly the rice paper becomes sticky and difficult to manipulate. One friend, dealing with a cooled, sticky sheet of rice paper, grumped: “Like the first time I used a condom.”
Interestingly, the namesake dish of this café, the pho — pronounced fuh — is the least realized dish on the menu. The broth, beef-based and the essential ingredient, though faintly redolent of herbs, lacks depth. The pho comes with a choice of ingredients ordered singly or in various combinations — rare steak, slippery tendon, meatball, brisket, flank, tendon and fanciful squiggles of tripe. Of course, you can squeeze your small piece of lime into your bowl, and amp up the flavors with the one or two slices of jalapeño pepper, all the bean sprouts (which add a crisp vegetal crunch) and purple basil. Plus, you can further doctor your soup with the condiments on the table — chili sauces, soy sauce, fish sauce. Still, the basic broth should sing, and this one only whispers rather prosaically. The chicken-based phos have a richer flavor, and are further improved by a ginger-garlic sauce: Remember this soup the next time you have a cold; it’s bound to be curative.
Bun, cold white-rice vermicelli noodles, come with six different toppings — various combinations of egg rolls and charbroiled beef, shrimp, or a vegetarian version with tofu and mushrooms — all of them served with chopped peanuts, many herbs, and more of the fish sauce with shredded carrot. Bun is a dish, like aglio olio, where each bite is a slightly different mix of the ingredients, and the more you eat, the more concentrated the flavors become.
Though the pho is better at Pho 79, the cha gio at Golden Deli, Pho Café is far more stylish, and the food is fresh enough, the ingredients good quality. The menu — compared to the many-paged, multitudinous documents in other Vietnamese cafés — is quickly and easily mastered, and thus will probably whet appetites and possibly even introduce a whole neighborhood to the fresh, clear flavors and textural pleasures of Vietnamese cooking.
Pho Café, 2841 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 413-0888. Lunch and dinner seven days, 11 a.m.–midnight. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Entrées $5.95–$6.75. Cash only.
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