I Love Pho

In all the three years of this food blogging business, the cuisine whose restaurants I have reviewed and have closed the most is Vietnamese, numbering 3, not counting those I didn’t write about.  Furthermore, recently, one of favorite places located near me folded up suddenly, which left a significant hole in my gastronomic palette. Consequently, a mission was set in me to find a worthy replacement, and a worthwhile place appeared unexpectedly in a most improbable place. I Love Pho is located at the back of an International grocery store in the heart of Laurel, MD. The space has seen one eatery after another come and go, and the opening of this food establishment piqued my curiosity. Initially, I was a bit nonplussed by their offering in their early days. However, there was a change of chef a few weeks later, and their dishes were starting to raise my eyebrows. After paying it a number of visits to sample the various dishes, I felt that I Love Pho was worth a write-up.

Spring Rolls

This eatery offers only two appetizers, and both are the usual Vietnamese standards. Cha Gio are Vietnamese spring rolls that I love from this cuisine. Their rendition here captured my attention from the first bite. The rolls were perfectly deep-fried, nearly greaseless to the touch. One bite into the roll revealed a very savory stuffing of minced pork, carrot, and shrimp, well-seasoned with spices and white pepper, and a slight touch of bounce from the bean noodle and wood fungus. But it is this same mixture that takes these rolls to another level as if having gone through a process of transubstantiation, tasting savory and beckoning the eater for more bites. The dipping sauce was also revelatory with its decent fish sauce, a good hit of lime juice, a hint of garlic, some crushed chili for some heat, and enough sugar to “round off” the strong flavors, making it worthy to sip like an elixir.

Summer Roll

The other standard opener is Goi Cuon or Summer Roll. During my visits, they were made a la minute which made them stand out from other establishments. The rice paper was supple and not chalky at all (due to refrigeration), wrapping the usual suspects of shrimp, pork, basil, and rice stick noodles. I also appreciated the shrimp that was not overcooked and the pieces of pork that were seasoned with enough salt, unlike the bland meat found in other places. The dipping sauce, tasting house-made, was not just only sweet from the  Hoisin, but salty enough to balance out the latter flavor, making it stand apart from other versions which tend to be lacking in the salt department. Again, another sauce that is finger-licking-good here. Unfortunately, my last order was refrigerated, resulting in the brittle and chalky qualities in these bites.

Banh Mi

One thing that I appreciate in this place is the serving of a Vietnamese favorite, Banh Mi, which can be hard to come by. The sandwich comes with an opened French baguette that was crusty and fairly spongy inside, stuffed with ham, Vietnamese salami, some daikon and carrot pickles, crunchy cucumber, crispy jalapeño, and fragrant cilantro. What adds some interest in these stuffed rolls is the salami that is studded with piquant peppercorns and made fragrant with some five-spice powder. Furthermore, the bread has been slathered with some rich paté on one side and the other garlic butter – yes, you read that right. The result is a bite that is completely irresistible, the sum of all the disparate elements that seem to fit in just right in that crusty bun. At $5 each, this is a damn good sandwich.

Pork Bun Salad

Another room temperature dish is Pork Bun Salad. The deconstructed bowl arrived with the various ingredients hugging their separate territories: Grilled Pork, pickles, basil leaves, cucumber, and crushed peanuts, all sitting on a mound of bouncy rice stick noodles.   The meat was perfectly cooked and tasting equally well seasoned with notes of fish sauce saltiness and some sugar sweet.  That amazing fish sauce dipping sauce is served to be poured on the mixture that binds all the bowl partners together.  This is another perfect summer dish in my books.

Pho Noodle

The ultimate litmus test in a Vietnamese place is its Beef Pho Noodles. Having said that I was not too wowed by the previous chef’s cooking, I was immediately impressed by this bowl with the change of guard. The secret to a good bowl of noddle is always in the broth, and this version grabbed my attention with the first sip. The fairly clear soup tasted complex from beef bones, interesting from the use of wood spices without shouting out their individual characteristics, and slightly dark and sweet from burnt whole onions. The co-stars in the bowl were equally impressive with the meat balls, thinly sliced beef, the bouncy Pho noodles, and the different garnishing which included the rarely served long leaf called Culantro in the Caribbean. After ingesting this revised recipe for the first time, I knew something was up in the back kitchen, and I did return indeed to try the other dishes.

Bo Bun Hue

The second litmus, in my mind, is another noodle soup, Bun Bo Hue, if it is offered at all in a Vietnamese joint. This is a spicy fragrant beef noodle soup with which the secret also lies in the broth like the above. The first sip of it again raised my eyebrows; it was complex with the lemongrass citrus fragrant hit, spicy with a slight throat-burning chili heat, and savory from the use of bones and the slightly funky shrimp paste in the making of its broth. Furthermore, some of the edible ingredients pointed towards a level of authenticity, notably blood cake and slices of tendon and pig’s feet. Not only I cannot get enough of this wonderful bowl, but also a friend who refuses to drink water as to not dilute the soup that he would devour until its last drop. I guess that is a testament to its oh-so-goodness.

Crispy Noodle

Not all noodle dishes served here are the soup form. Tucked in the menu, and not on the display board, is Seafood Crispy Noodle. The first time I ordered this, they had forgotten the order, and after reminding them, the result that landed on my table was a sub par rushed job. However, I gave it another try. The second time around, it met my expectations. The noodles were perfectly crispy and cooked in-house, judging by the loud WHOOSH in the kitchen. The topping was a very tasty and savory mixture of seafood and vegetables: fish ball, perfectly cooked shrimp, squid (a bit overcooked the second time), faux crab (didn’t care for that) and a melange of slightly crispy but cooked vegetables.  It was the sauce that not only tasted perfectly seasoned and savory, but it was more than enough liquid to soften the noodles with its flavors. I’m glad I give this dish another chance, making it high on my order list.

Grilled Chicken

There are a couple of grilled meat dishes worth mentioning. The first is Grilled Chicken. Pieces of well-marinated chicken thigh (not breast, whew) have been grilled until the tips are slightly charred and crispy.  What makes each bite sing in the mouth is the long marination that exuded fragrant lemongrass, salty fish sauce, a hint of garlic, and some sweetness.  The salad with pickles and some rice were the perfect foil to these rich tasting bites.  Usually not part of the meal, I always request a bowl of that so-good Pho soup to go with the meal, which they are happy to oblige me.  With all these well done components, this is truly a satisfactory dinner worth ordering repeatedly.

Grilled Pork

The other grilled meat dish is Grilled Pork Chop. Again, pieces of pork chop have been marinated and pan-fried. The meat was slightly salty from fish sauce and sweet at the same time, while a dose of softened green onions added slight sweet pungency to these bites. However, the plate partners were equal heavy weights on the plate. The slice of meat loaf was very savory with a slight bounce from the use of wood fungus, as well as the pig skin salad that belied its nature with its slight smokiness and tasty allure. What makes this dish successful is the equal attention given to all the elements on the plate.

Bo Kho

A couple of stews round-up this review. Bo Kho is a beef stew with pieces of carrot. Again, one sip of the broth pointed towards a set of knowledgeable and expert hands. It was perfumed with some lemongrass, sweetened with some tomato and the carrot pieces, spiced with some star-anise, and made savory by the pieces of quality beef that just fell apart in the mouth. A side of crusty baguette was the perfect vehicle to sop up every drop of this wonderful sauce. An alternative serving is with noodles, but I prefer the bread with these tasty meaty bites.

Goat Curry

The other stew, and final dish, is Cari De, Goat Curry. This dish was not what I expected at all. Pieces of goat meat with the skin intact were coated in a thick curry sauce, more viscous than the usual Vietnamese curry. Furthermore, it was slightly sweet and it had a hint of acid (confirmed by the chef) with more spice fragrance than the usual renditions, tasting a step above Japanese curry but not the Madras kind. I started to appreciate the rather complex curry sauce as well as the meat whose mild-tasting skin I eventually got used to. Again, the baguette bread was the perfect accompaniment for the dish, instead of the noodles.

The low customer presence in this eatery made me wonder if I was off my game by raving about this small unassuming place, like some kind of crazy lonewolf. Checking online reviews of it, my praises for it were echoed by both novices and cognoscentis of the cuisine. I don’t know how long this establishment will last in this spot, but I hope more people will discover it and start to patronize this hidden treasure, albeit in the back of a supermarket. No doubt, all this was said for my own selfish benefit and hungry stomach.

Pho & Grill 198

Pho & Grill 198Vietnamese 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.

Fresh Lemon JuiceDurian Smoothie

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.

Crispy Spring RollsSummer Rolls

Pleiku style Rice Paper RollsWell, 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.

Banh XeoRoasted Quail

Stir-fried Baby ClamsPerusing 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 mild and subtle flavors.  I enjoyed this mixture with the sweet tasting baby clams, the crunchy and aromatic fried shallots, the fragrance from mint leaves and pungent Vietnamese Rau Ram 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 possible due to the portion size, like my friends and I have done so on our visits.

Shrimp Bun Noodle Salad

Grilled PorkFor 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.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue GarnishSince 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.

Pho Tai

Pho TaiA 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 this bowl.

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Flan CakeDesserts 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.

Vietnamese CoffeePho & 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.

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Banh Mi>Addendum:
Pho & Grill 198 has just started serving the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi, and I had a taste of it today. Fresh crusty baguette, crispy vegetables, sweet and sour pickles, Jalapeño bite, fragrant cilantro, and marinated lemongrass grilled meat – a winning combination!! Finally this sandwich has made it to this side of the DMV.

Pho & Grill 198 on Urbanspoon

Pho Kevin

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.

Pho Kevin

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.

Cha Gio/Fried Spring Rolls

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.

Fresh Summer RollThe 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.

Pho Beef NoodleBun Bo Hue/Spicy Beef Noodle

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.

Grilled Pork, Shredded Pork, and Meat LoafGrilled Beef and Fried Egg

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.

Shrimp Bun Salad

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.

Che 3 Mau/Three Bean DessertOn 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.

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Ca Phe Sua/Coffee and Condensed MilkAh, 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.

Pho Kevin on Urbanspoon

Huong Viet

Huong VietThis must be some bad economic times that we are going through.  Uncertainty seems to hover over the housing market, the stock market, the job market, a looming sequestration, and undoubtedly the restaurant business.  More than a handful of restaurants that I have reviewed have folded up since I started a year ago.  To make matters worse, both Vietnamese restaurants on my blog have shut their doors, one after nearly 15 years of business, and the other just a mere 8 months.  As you may have read about my elusive search for a good Vietnamese eatery near me and in DC, this series of events was quite a blow.

With such daunting news in  mind, I approached my trusty Vietnamese barber and asked her for a reliable recommendation.  She pointed me to Eden Center, in the Seven Corners neighborhood of Fairfax, VA, where there is a confluence of Vietnamese business that populate that rather expansive plaza.  This was one place that I used to visit quite often to savor some good cooking when the Four Sisters Restaurant ran their business there before moving further out to the boondocks.   After their move, there was little cause to visit that area except when the occasional taste for steamed tofu with ginger syrup propelled me to drive the nearly 30 miles to terra incognito, as it seems that way to me.   But with a strong reference in mind, I coraled my dinner group on the eve of the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese, and paid a visit to Huong Viet , a small eatery that has survived all these years since my visit there nearly 20 years ago.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Walking into the establishment, the decor and the set up are not as plush or creative as most modern restaurants, and the regularly spaced long and short tables do bring to mind a nice clean cafeteria.  After a short wait outside in the cold, we were shown to our long table that accommodated my party of five.   Any feeling of doubt or hesitancy was immediately erased by a sense of assurance brought about by the busyness of the restaurant and the number of Vietnamese-speaking customers in the place. With that thought in mind, I plunged into the menu and quickly ordered some common appetizers.  The Summer Rolls came with soft rice crepe paper wrapped around a filling of perfectly cooked moist rice vermicelli noodles, fresh sweet shrimp, mild roast pork, crisp lettuce, fragrant mint leaves, and finished with a long strand of pungent Asian chive.  But what tied all these disparate elements together was the dipping sauce.  This restaurant’s version had only a bare hint of hoisin unlike other versions that overwhelms the palate with its flavor.  Mixed in it was a peanut sauce that made it rich and nutty, and its unique balance pointed towards it being house-made rather than store-bought.  This was a good fresh bite.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls/Cha GioWe also ordered the counterpart to the above – Fried Spring Roll or CHẢ GIÒ.  When it arrived at the table, I noticed a few variations from the norms commonly found in other places.  First, the large bubbles on the fried skin indicated that it was made in a traditional fashion with Vietnamese rice crepe paper and not with Chinese spring roll sheets that are commonly used these days.  The second was that it was cut into two before it was deep-fried, which intrigued me even further.   Sheer hunger or delectable food can produce a certain suspension of analysis of thought as I honestly don’t recall much from this dish.  All I remember was that the stuffing tasted very moist and savory encased by a crispy shell, and these bites disappeared quickly among my friends who snatched them up while piping hot.  The side sweet and salty fish sauce was adequate but not as memorable as the expensive elixir served in the defunct Green Papaya restaurant.   However, this dish was worth a moment of relapse during dinner.

Young Lotus Root Salad

Another common appetizer found in this Southeast Asian cuisine is Young Lotus Root Salad.  Strands of cooked lotus roots have been mixed with pieces of pork and whole shrimp, lightly seasoned by the ubiquitous sweet and salty fish sauce.  Wow, I could barely get a bite of this because it was ferociously attacked by my companions, and deservedly so.  The pieces of lotus were perfectly cooked while maintaining its characteristic light crunch along with its savoriness developed from being marinated.  The sweet shrimp and moist pork provided the unctuous notes to the mild root, while the crushed peanuts and fried shallot rings added the nuttiness and dark flavors to the clean mild tasting salad.  The rounds of addictive shrimp crackers provided some textural interest as well as serving as the perfect scoopers for this melange.  This was definitely a hit for all of us and we should have ordered another serving of it.

Riceflour Pancake/Banh Xeo

For our main courses, we ordered a quartet of dishes.  The first was a classic Vietnamese dish found in any reputable restaurant – Bánh Xèo.  This stuffed crepe dish literally means “sizzling cake” consisting of a rice flour crepe stuffed with pieces of pork, cooked shrimp and a heaping of cooked bean sprouts.  The crepe had a hint of coconut milk and it was quite crispy, however, not rich or crispy enough for my taste, compared to the fabulous version in The Green Papaya.  Like most versions, the crepe is underseasoned for it is the sweet and salty fish sauce that imparts the necessary seasoning to this very mild dish.  Once my companions figured how to attack the dish, they were enjoying every bite of it.  But I could not help but reminiscence the rich delectable version of the aforementioned closed restaurant.

Shakey Beef

While waiting outside, an acquaintance of one of my dining companions recommended that we order Shakey Beef.  The name was odd enough for me and I had never come across a dish with such name.  The order arrived with pieces of cubed beef along with some onion and green pepper squares, plain and assuming.  The first bite revealed a personality beyond its unassuming looks.  The beef was tossed and seared on high heat in the wok, judging by pieces of caramelized bits, while maintaining a tender medium-rare inside.  Surprisingly, every bite tasted well seasoned and very savory from what tastes like soy sauce, bits of garlic, and a hint of sugar that brought the flavors to another level.   This was a truly successful dish for all of the diners and I enjoyed every beefy bite.

Shrimp with VegetablesTo bring some balance to the meat dishes, we ordered Shrimp with Vegetables.  Pieces of celery, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and baby corn are paired with pieces of large shrimp in this dish.  The sweet tender shrimp made the perfect foil to the pieces of sweet al dente pieces of vegetables, while the mushroom adds some earthiness and the baby corn some young sweetness.  What brought all the elements together was the rather rich sauce packed with garlic pieces flavored with oyster sauce and thickened with corn starch.  Although it was a rather light dish, the savory sauce made it seem richer, and it was worth ordering this vegetable seafood dish.  Another hit among my dining group.

Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken

No visit to taste this Southeast Asian cuisine should have a lemongrass dish amiss from the dining table, and we honed on Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken.  The plate arrived with chucks of chicken thigh cooked with large pieces of sweet yellow onions, swimming in a shallow pool of brown sauce.  What truly made this two-ingredient dish delectable and successful was the sauce that was packed with the citrusy lemongrass paired with the seafood salty fish sauce with a tinge of sweetness from the caramel that rounded off the flavors. The pieces of chicken thigh was not the mild breast version so as to stand up to the punchy sauce while adding the necessary body along with the sweet and pungent onion.  Even when the morsels were gone, I was lapping up every drop of sauce with bits of rice as I could not get enough of the sauce that transported me to Indochina.  Another must order here for sure!

Vietnamese Drink Dessert

Despite feeling content with the above dishes, I was curious about the unique Vietnamese sweet servings.  There was not much in terms of solid desserts with the exception of Caramel Flan but the menus listed a list of sweet drinks with bits of “stuff” that are commonly eaten by the locals.  My glass came with a concoction of whole red beans, sweet corn, crushed peanuts, and bits of green agar-agar jelly.  The sweetening agent was a syrup consisting of a mixture of brown sugar and rich coconut milk.  Upon mixing the various elements, things did not look very appetizing at first, but with the first mouthful, it was a revelation of flavors and textures.  Every element spoke for itself: nuttiness from the peanuts, sweetness from the corn, starchiness from the red beans, molasses sweetness from the brown sugar, and vegetal creaminess from the coconut milk.  The green jelly did not add any flavor at all but a jellybean-like texture consistency to the bite, which a couple of my friends found a bit disconcerting – LOL.  Before I knew it, most of my dining companions were partaking in this sweet dish, and we finished it con mucho gusto.

Huong VietComing back to Huong Viet for me was like the return of the prodigal son.   When in doubt, do what the Romans do, or as in this case, what the Vietnamese do.  Thanks to my barber’s infallible suggestion, I’m glad to have made the long trek to Eden Center to taste what has always been there all these years – proper delectable Vietnamese dishes that wowed my dining group even days after our visit.  Never mind the inattentive service at times and the bare ambience.  But what makes up for the shortcomings is the main reason to haul oneself there – the impressive dishes.  Note to diner – they only accept cash but we walked out of there with barely with a dent made since it was around $20/person.   With such good cooking and low prices, I would easily do the 30-mile drive.

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