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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.