At Pho Saigon in Glen Allen, Quality and Complexity Are in Order
When I think of eating Vietnamese food in Richmond, I automatically think of one of the small restaurants near Horsepen Road — that strange and wonderful enclave of various Asian businesses in the near West End. Subconsciously, I’ve used location as a measure of authenticity, ignoring restaurants elsewhere.
However, farther out in the West End, tucked away in a nondescript strip mall, is Pho Saigon, a little gem serving southern Vietnamese cuisine. With a friendly staff, an approachable menu, and food that hasn’t been dumbed down for Western palates, it achieves the rare combination of making foreign food accessible to Americans without compromising quality.
Pho Saigon’s décor is simple but pleasant, with a few travel posters and conical-hat lamp shades to remind you of the food’s country of origin. There’s a bar with a few well-chosen American draft beers, and a larger number of East Asian bottled beers. Wine and sake are also available.
To begin your meal, although the spring rolls and dumplings are perfectly acceptable, skip the familiar and try the bôt chiên ($6 small, $8.50 large). An open-faced omelet is served with spongy fried taro squares, topped with fresh papaya, pickled carrot and daikon, and served with a piquant vinegar sauce to douse the whole dish. Bánh xèo ($6.95) is another excellent appetizer, an interesting combination of lettuce wrap and crepe. A rice crepe is stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, and intended to be sliced, rolled in lettuce, and dipped in nuoc cham, a ubiquitous fi sh sauce with chili. Pho, the namesake soup of the restaurant, is consistently well-executed and compares favorably with other local options. For neophytes, the soup is made of a unique and complex broth, usually beef-based, spiced with ginger, cinnamon, star anise, and fi lled with various cuts of meat and rice noodles. It is always served with a plate of toppings — mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime and jalapeño peppers. At Pho Saigon, you can be adventurous and order pho tái chín gân sách bò viên ($9.25), which includes tendon and omasa, or the third stomach of a cow, or you can play it safe with pho tái chín ($8.50) with eye of round and brisket. The pho chay ($8) is the best vegetarian version I’ve ever had; the complexity of the fl avors isn’t lost because there’s no meat in the broth.
As popular as pho is, it’s not my favorite Vietnamese dish. I prefer bún, a bowl of rice noodles, served with meat or tofu, pickled carrot and daikons, cucumber, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts, and accompanied by a bowl of nuoc cham. The light fl avor of the noodles is set off by the sharp fl avor of pickled vegetables, the richness of grilled meat, and a depth of fl avor provided by the fi sh sauce and chilis. Pho Saigon has several excellent versions ($8.75-9.50), all nicely topped with a chopped fried spring roll which adds a crispy element to the dish.
The com ($9.25-$9.50), or broken rice topped with grilled meat and served with nuoc châm, is also a good choice, though on one visit the rice was slightly overcooked. This was one of very few problems I encountered over four separate visits. The bánh mì sandwich ($6.95) served with meat or tofu, is good, and while there are better versions in Richmond, this one comes with a small bowl of broth for dipping, which is a nice touch.
And for those of you tired of these standard Vietnamese menu options, Pho Saigon has other choices. For special occasions, you can call ahead and request a roasted suckling pig. The gà ragu ($11.75) is a tomato-based broth with a haunting spice profi le I could never quite nail down and the kitchen wouldn’t divulge. It’s on the one hand unremarkable — chicken and a few vegetables in a tomato broth served with rice — but captivating for its departure from American expectations.
For dessert, try their excellent version of bubble tea ($4.50) in a variety of fl avors (taro’s a good choice) or the mango sorbet ($4.50), made in house and incredibly fresh tasting.
Despite my hesitation at eating Vietnamese cuisine in a Glen Allen strip mall, I was won over by the thoughtful menu and consistent execution. Now I’ll make my way through the rest of the menu, and you may just find me there on my birthday trying out the suckling pig.
Pho Saigon chef Minh Katsiff displays Bánh Xèo. The “sizzling cake” stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts is a more unusual starter for a Vietnamese restaurant.
I put pho, the signature Vietnamese noodle soup, in the same category as Italian red sauce and Indian curries. There are a million ways to season each, yet everyone has a go-to restaurant that makes “the best” or “most authentic” version.
For years, the area surrounding the intersection of West Broad Street and Horsepen Road was the nucleus of pho houses, but these days, you can find Vietnamese food all over town.
Subsequently, the battle of “who has the best pho” has become a more frequent and fervent topic of conversation among foodies and non-foodies alike.
One of the newer contenders is Pho Saigon, in the former home of Bistro R, tucked into a tiny shopping center near Innsbrook. After a recent visit, its exceedingly fragrant pho tái ($8.50), made with eye of round, has quickly moved near the top of my list of favorites.
Although its pho broth is complex, Pho Saigon’s decor is not. A small bar serves a decent selection of wine, beer and sake.Around the side of a decorative cinderblock divider is a tiny sage green dining room minimally decorated with posters and chalkboards listing daily specials.
We were quietly greeted by the lone server and told to sit wherever we’d like. Only two tables were occupied, but as the meal progressed, the space began to fill with families, couples and friends.
Pho Saigon serves appetizers found at most Vietnamese restaurants, such as cha giò, delicately fried rice paper rolls filled with a subtle mix of minced pork and carrots (two for $3.50, three for $4.50). But we found the bánh xèo, literally “sizzling cake,” a more unusual starter.
A large, crispy crepe made with rice flour, Indian saffron and coconut milk was folded around pork, shrimp, chicken, beef and bean sprouts ($7.95, pork and shrimp only for $6.95). We wrapped pieces of the stuffed crepe with tingly Thai basil in accompanying lettuce leaves, finishing each bite off with a dunk in spicypiquant fish sauce.
The varying textures were as intriguing as the strangely harmonious marriage of savory and refreshing flavors. Unfortunately, the few small lettuce leaves ran out quickly, leaving the remaining bites of crepe lacking that extra snap.
Pho Saigon’s entrees are divided into pho, bún (vermicelli rice noodle bowls), com (broken rice) and stir-fry categories. A bánh mi, the traditional Vietnamese sandwich served on French baguette, is also available for $6.95.
Rife with clove and cinnamon, the pho tái’s heady beef broth wafted from the bowl of slippery rice noodles, simultaneously tickling my nostrils and tempting my taste buds. I upped the ante by adding green onion, Thai basil, lime and jalapeño, but wished cilantro had also been included.
Pho Saigon prepares provincial cuisine from the Dong Nai region of southern Vietnam, where sweeter flavors dominate and a wider variety of herbs are readily available.
Following suit, the charbroiled pork in bún thit cha giò ($9.25), served atop vermicelli rice noodles with crispy spring roll, flaunted subtle sugary notes, which were balanced by the fresh mix of daikon, cucumber, bean sprouts and pickled carrot.
The grilled beef in com bò nuóng ($9.50), served atop steamed jasmine rice, was tender and juicy, but the two slices of carrot and cucumber were more garnish than contributing elements of the dish, as the menu implied.
I suggest ending with a bubble tea ($4.50), a milky, smoothie-like mix of chewy tapioca balls and your choice of everything from kiwi or coconut to taro or jackfruit.
Pho Saigon is a solid addition to Richmond’s growing list of Vietnamese restaurants. It may not stand out in every menu category, but its pho is definitely worth the trip.
By Dana Craig, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 26, 2012