In past blogs, I have posted and quibbled that finding a decent Vietnamese restaurant outside of their established communities has been like searching for the Holy Grail. Complicating matters and my hunt, the few that I have blogged about have folded up to much of my dismay. I had pretty much resorted to trekking to Northern Virginia (read blog) to savor some of my favorite dishes when the mood hits me to endure the 35-mile drive.
Recently, my BFF and I were driving around Laurel, MD, to find fabric to replace the upholstery of his dining room set, he having just become a new home owner just like I have. On our way out, we spotted a new establishment that had taken over a defunct Chinese take-out. Looking at the new restaurant sign, we couldn’t help but remark that its name was an eye-catcher, one being that most Pho places are never named after a particular person, the other that it was my bestie’s name; he posted a photo of it on Facebook and many fell for the joke thinking that he had opened it himself. A few days later, BFF and I decided to pay Pho Kevin a visit during one of our rendezvous around the area. After that visit, I knew that it was going to be featured as my next blog.
Some of my favorite appetizers are the Vietnamese kind, especially their rolls. On one visit, I ordered the Cha Gio, or Fried Spring Roll. The two thin rolls arrived piping hot with a fish sauce concoction and some pickled carrots and daikon on the side. The rolls were decent with a rather compact stuffing of minced shrimp and pork, tasting very savory and more peppery that what I was used to. The outer shell was the Chinese spring roll skin rather than the rice paper used in more traditional places, encasing the stuffing that was a bit too dense for my taste – the traditional use of taro root would lighten it up. Most Vietnamese places have gotten away from serving these rolls with some fresh herbs and lettuce, and unfortunately, this place was no exception. However, the side of Nuoc Cham was the right mixture of quality briny fish sauce, acidic vinegar, sweet sugar, and some chili heat. Anywhere that serves quality fish sauce that is smooth and not overly pungent indicates a house that cares and pays attention to the small details.
The other type of roll is the Fresh Spring Roll, or Goi Cuon. The rolls arrived just like what I expected. Rice paper is used to wrap a filling of rice vermicelli, lettuce, slices of pork, and slices of boiled shrimp, served with a Hoisin-based sauce sprinkled with some crushed peanuts. What made these rolls good were subtle. The rice paper skin was slightly moist and tasted recently made, not prepared in advance and refrigerated which would turn the starch slightly chalky to the bite. But here, it was all fresh and supple to the bite, with the shrimp tasting sweet and the pork slices exuding its porcine beauty. Despite the lack of salt in the rolls, it was the sauce that was the compensatory note with its sweet and salty fragrant Hoisin sauce cooked with some creamy rich nutty coconut cream, while the bits of peanuts added its nuttiness to the dip. Unfortunately, an extra note of mint and basil leaves would have completed the whole package. Nevertheless, this was quite good and it did not take me long to finish these two rolls off.
A friend’s order one day was Pho Tai, or Rare Eye Round Steak Noodle Soup. The bowl was filled with a slightly murky soup surrounding a mound of rice noodles and topped with slices of raw lean beef, thin enough to be gently cooked by the piping hot broth. Having a sip of the liquid, I could taste the use of cinnamon and star-anise in the broth, as well as the use of beef bones causing the pieces to lend its marrow goodness and depth of flavor. My Vietnamese friend gave his approval with this bowlful as he thought that it was up to scratch. My order on that day was Bun Bo Hue. It is a Spicy Beef Noodle with various “pieces” of uhm, meat and etc. The noodle was the proper kind, being the round thicker version not found with the regular noodle soup, moistened by a beefy soup made spicy with whole dried red chilis. What makes this dish unique is the use of “off-cuts” in the dish: skin, tendon, knuckle, and other unrecognizable pieces. Unfortunately, the traditional use of congealed blood was not served which was a bit of a disappointment for this diner who doesn’t mind that funky bite. The customary serving of the slightly fishy shrimp paste and a dollop of dried chili paste added to the unique experience, along with a plateful of chopped cabbage, fragrant Vietnamese mint (Rau Ran), and a slice of lime that added some crunch and citrus kick. I have not found many Pho places serving this unique spicy bowl, and I’m glad that this is close to my house.
One thing that sets this Pho house apart from other noodle houses is the serving of rice dishes and grilled meats. When I set foot here for the first time, I ordered the Grilled Beef Rice dish, and was I impressed. The dish arrived with the grilled beef, meat loaf, shredded pork, and a mound of steamed rice. What got my attention immediately were the pieces of well-marinated and moist pieces of meat, tasting both salty and slightly sweet, with a hint of caramelization, and brought to another level with the fragrant lemongrass that left its mark in the aftertaste without overwhelming the subtle flavors – I bite into each morsel intrigued by all the different notes that sang harmoniously. The shredded pork compromised of finely sliced pork skin that belied its nature by the flavor hinting of smoky ground rice powder, but betrayed by its bouncy texture (a friend finished it with no idea what it was). The meat loaf was a light concoction of minced meat pressed together with a beaten egg topping, tasting savory and akin to French paté but a la Vietnam. The side broth was so good with a rich tasting body made more enticing with drops of shallot oil swimming on top, which made it the perfect accompaniment and palate cleanser to the meaty morsels. A friend’s order of Grilled Pork was equally tantalizing with the similar treatment in seasoning and cooking. Indeed, the rice dishes here are definitely worth one’s attention when perusing the menu.
During my last visit, I was in the mood for the Grilled Shrimp Bun Salad since it was sunny and in the 60′s, which felt like a heat wave after weeks of Polar frigid weather. The bowl arrived filled with springy (and slightly al dente) rice vermicelli, finely chopped lettuce, julienned cucumber, bean sprouts, pickles, fresh mint, and 5 pieces of large shrimp, sprinkled with some crushed peanuts and green onions. But what sets this version apart from the others is the shrimp that had a beautiful caramelization from its stay on the grill and the slightly sweet marinate with bits of slightly charred lemongrass that added more interest to the seafood. And the pieces were perfectly cooked with no bouncy texture in each bite, which astounded me. The quality fish sauce was the icing on the cake in this salad, and I was spooning up whatever was left in the bowl once the noodles were gone. I’m looking forward to savoring this noodle salad in the warmer months to come.
On one visit, I was inspired to try out one of their desserts, which is a combo of a few of their offerings – Che 3 Mau or Three Color Dessert. The milkshake glass contained some red beans, cooked yellow lentils, and green jelly – such starches are commonly found in Southeast Asian desserts. But turning these ingredients into a sweet bite was the use of sugar syrup and a good douse of some coconut cream, topped by a mound of ice shavings. Even though my dining companions were quite sated from their main dishes, they could not help but dip their long spoons into the tall glass for the sweet beans and a spoonful of the chilled sweet coconut cream – definitely worth trying if there is room, or no room, for a sweet end.
Ah, Pho Kevin is worthy of a write-up for its wonderful offerings. Its Pho dishes are well-made, but what sets it apart from other places is the spicy beef noodle (Bun Bo Hue), to the tasty and fragrant grilled meat dishes, to the wonderfully grilled shrimp in the Bun Salad with that quality fish sauce, to the sweet bean dessert. I am thrilled that I can visit an establishment close to my home that serves such variety of dishes beyond the beef noodle soup Pho dish that can be found nearly strip mal in the region. After nearly 5 months in business, seeing a steady stream coming through its doors is a good indicator of the savory dishes that people are beginning to recognize and enjoy. I’m just hoping that this place is here to stay, and judging by what I have enjoyed there, it stands a great chance of doing so.