Vietnamese Restaurants pose quite a challenge for any blogger, especially for this reviewer. In the past, I have griped about the lack of good establishments outside of traditional Vietnamese communities, like Eden Center, Fairfax, VA, with offerings beyond the expected bowl of Pho noodles. I have also lamented about the demise of a few restaurants of this cuisine, of which one served outstanding modern and traditional dishes whose flavors were indelible in my mind. In addition, some places that I have visited have not maintained their standards after a few months of opening, and they have fallen off my must-visit list. So, when a new Vietnamese joint opened just down the road from me in Burtonsville, MD, I had mixed emotions, not knowing which course this culinary adventure would take me.
Pho & Grill 198 occupies what once used to be a Chinese restaurant in the middle of a strip mall that would escape one’s attention in a blink of the eye. I so happened to stumble upon this new establishment when I took my parents to try Ethiopian food a couple of doors down (a rare visit from Australia), and after picking up its take-out menu, I noticed some interesting dishes that went beyond my expectation. Walking in there for the first time, the well-lacquered furniture and wooden floors, perhaps leftover from its previous life, exuded a warm welcoming ambiance with lots of light streaming through the storefront windows. Well, after a few visits to this spot, here is my report.
Drinks maybe not the highlight in one’s meal, but I do enjoy some from this cuisine. I had to try the Lemonade, listed as Fresh Lemon Juice. After hearing the sound of a stirring spoon in a glass coming from the bar, I know that it was made a la minute. Fresh it was, indeed, filled with bits of tart bits of lemon, sweet enough without sending you into a diabetic shock – the perfect end-of-summer thirst quencher. Another drink that I honed in on the menu came from the smoothies section, and I had to go for my favorite flavor – Durian. My glass came filled with a thick icy creamy concoction that tasted rich and milky, with the pungent Durian sulphuric notes (some describe it as “rotting garbage”) cutting through and overshadowing the diary’s innocent mild flavors. I love the funkiness of this Southeast Asian fruit that I grew up on, and I was savoring every drop like a prized treasure – not for the uninitiated but totally up my alley. The drinks category are worth looking at, beyond the usual glass of water I usually settle for.
Well, moving on to the appetizers. This place offers a number of types of rolls, some familiar and some not. The Crispy Spring Roll was ordered on one occasion. What set them slightly apart from most that I have savored was the flavors of crab meat and shrimp that were more pronounced even though they were ground up together into the pork mixture. They were tasty, fairly light and greaseless, but I did miss the use of taro root in the traditional recipe that adds the certain soft texture to a dense filling (a rare practice these days). However, they were pretty good light bites. Since it was summer, I also had to try their Summer Roll. The rice paper wrapping was still fairly soft and moist without the chalkiness from refrigeration. The stuffing was a combination of slices of sweet shrimp (a bit overcooked and tough for me) and savory pork, mixed with lettuce, mint and Perilla leaves. The addition of the herbs in the bundle added a note of interest to this savory light combination, not commonly found in other versions, which I found refreshing with these bites. The last type of roll savored was something completely new for me – Pleiku Style Rice Paper Rolls. This Rice Paper bundle comes stuffed with grilled beef, grilled pork stick (like spam), crispy roll, fried egg, cucumber and mixed pickles. Wow, what a roll it was! I was enjoying the myriad of flavors, all tasting well-prepared and well-seasoned, and textures from the various partners who happen to get along well with each other in the cramped roll. These bites encompassed all the good things I like about this cuisine, brought together in this super roll. This has become my favorite roll which hails from the owner’s Central Vietnam hometown.
Perusing the menu for the first time, I noticed a couple of dishes in the same section that are not usually found in other Pho places. The first is Banh Xeo or Stuffed Vietnamese Crepes. A couple of yellowish crepes arrive stuffed with shrimp, beef, onion, and beansprouts. The shrimps were large and sweet, the beef well-seasoned and tasty, onions sweet, and the beansprouts added the necessary slight crunch to the mixture. But what made the dish stand out were the crepes themselves. The skins were smoky from being cooked on a smoking cast-iron to produce this crisp and slightly charred crepe (“Xeo” in the name denotes the sizzling of the mixture hitting the hot pan). The version served here may not be rich with coconut milk (a South Vietnamese trait), but the whole mixture was appealing enough for a friend considering hijacking my dish. The briny fish sauce was the obligatory and necessary accompaniment to bring saltiness to the unseasoned crepe, which is the case in the traditional approach. Another appetizer that immediately caught my attention was Roasted Quail. My order arrived with the miniature bird shiny from a good lacquering and dark from the roasting. The meat was quite firm yet moist, pulling off the bone rather easily, and exuding exotic notes from the judicious use of five-spice powder that made each bite delectable and the bones somewhat edible too. Good things come in all sizes, and this small bite is no exception. Another order that night was Stir-Fried Baby Clams. The plate arrived with a mixture of the bits of seafood mixed with herbs, topped with crispy fried shallots, along with a plate of rice crackers. One bite into the dish pointed towards a mild and subtly flavored dish. I enjoyed this dish with the sweet tasting baby clams, the crunchy and aromatic fried shallots, the fragrance from mint leaves and pungent Vietnamese Rau Ran herb, and hints of lemongrass and chili wafting through each mouthful. The rice crackers made the perfect vehicle for the soft seafood with their crunchy texture and for the added savoriness that they lent to each bite. The above appetizers are worth a try, and making the Banh Xeo and Baby Clams into a main course is very possible due to the portion size, like my friends and I have done so on our visits.
For the main course, there are selections of dry and soup dishes. From the non-soup entrees, I ordered Shrimp Bun Noodle Salad on one occasion. The bowl arrived with a mound of rice noodles surrounded by the usual suspects of mint leaves, cucumber, lettuce, and pickled root vegetables, all topped with a heap of cooked butterflied shrimp, fried spring rolls, and a sprinkling of nutty peanuts. After pouring the obligatory fish sauce mixed with some Sriracha sauce, the dish tasted very much like how most Bun salads do. However, what sets this version apart was the shrimp that tasted a bit sweet and charred from some hot grill action, albeit a bit too long judging but its slight toughness. But, I was enjoying the mini fried spring roll bits that provided the textural contrast to the soft elements in the bowl. A friend’s order of Grilled Pork Rice dish arrived with an impressive amount of the grilled meat. One bite into his dish made a wonderful impression: well-marinated meat tasting slightly sweet and salty, and slightly smoky from its stay on the hot grill. The bits of fried green onions added the slight onion-like fragrance to these meaty bites. Another friend’s order made with Grilled Beef was equally impressive with a hit of lemongrass that exuded it citrus root fragrance to these clean tasting yet well-marinated pieces. Another friend’s order of Combination Fried Rice was skilfully made with lightly oiled yellow rice studded with pieces of meat and shrimp, onions and pieces of vegetables, all delicately seasoned – I couldn’t resist but take more than a couple of scoops from my friend’s plate.
Since it was a Pho establishment, I knew I had to try their noodle soups. Ever since I was introduced to Bun Bo Hue in a now-defunct establishment, this dish had to be ordered on one of my visits here. The bowl was brimming with some steaming reddish soup, covering some round rice noodles and bits of off-cuts like beef shank and pork knuckles, along with Vietnamese ham and some vegetables. But the star of the dish, and deservedly so, is the broth that had hints of herbal lemongrass, spicy chili kick, and a seafood pungency from the use of shrimp paste, much like anchovy paste. The side plate of sliced cabbage, banana blossom, mint, Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram), Perilla leaves (cousin of Shiso), added the additional textural interest and herbal qualities to this savory spicy dish. As if the soup was not shrimpy enough, a container of fermented shrimp paste added more sea brininess to the mix. I have to admit that this is the best version I have eaten in quite some time, and I’m glad I can just head down the road for this spicy bowl.
A bowl of the proverbial Pho noodles was calling my name on another visit, and I chose the simple Pho Tai. The bowl of hot steaming bowl came with a mound of eye-round steak sitting on rice noodles surrounded by a clear soup. After separating the paper-thin beef slices and cooking them in the broth, I could taste the mild beef flavors that were indicative of fresh quality meat. But what grabbed my attention was the broth that was perfectly seasoned without a trace of MSG, with faint hints of the spices used in its cooking, without any single spice standing out – a completely round flavor. Usually one for stronger flavors in my Pho broth (more star-anise, more cassia bark), I marveled at this “roundness” of flavor, and I don’t think anyone would find fault with its flavors.
Desserts do not feature extensively in Asians cuisine, Vietnamese included. However, I couldn’t help but order Flan Cake at the end of dinner one night, this dish obviously being a vestige of French rule. A small bowl arrived with the cooked custard surrounded by coffee, with shaved ice perching on the cake as well as pieces swimming in the caffeinated liquid. This was an interesting combination with the slightly sweet and creamy flan mixed with the slightly bitter and under sweetened coffee. I quite enjoyed this interesting pairing, but it would have been more successful if the coffee was sweeter since it was robbing some of the flan’s sugars, which made the cake a bit flat. A friend’s night-cap of Vietnamese Coffee arrived on the table in its traditional style: a filtering contraption sitting on top of a shot glass filled with thick sweet condensed milk. A sip from his glass confirmed what I like about Vietnamese coffee – sweet, strong and bitter without the acrid notes (usually found in American coffee), exuding aromatic chicory notes from its roasting.
Pho & Grill 198 is not your typical Pho noodle place. What this place offers is far beyond what one usually expects from this type of establishment, with offerings of the wonderful “super” Pleiku roll, the aromatic Roasted Quail, the subtle but tasty Baby Clams, the smoky and crispy Crepes, the rounded flavors in the Pho noodles, and the wow factor that I savored in the Bun Bo Hue spicy noodle soup. An establishment of this kind in the suburbs is a rare find, even more so in a not-so-diverse suburban town in Montgomery county. But judging by the stream of clients entering its doors, the word is out that something good is going on here. Fortunately for me, it is just a stone throw away from my house, and I will be walking through its doors with some frequency for the wide variety of its scrumptious Vietnamese offerings.