A few years back, I had a boyfriend who had relocated to the city from Seattle, Washington. He didn’t last a year in Pittsburgh. Among his many complaints: erratic weather (check), lackluster local music scene (when you’re from Seattle you get to make these kind of assessments based on little to no hard data), lack of jobs, the giant hill down Main Street from Penn to Butler (dude seriously hated that hill), and no “decent” or “authentic” pho.
Most of the points are debatable (except for the Main Street hill – that does suck), but my opinion on local Asian cuisine is this: if you haven’t had good Asian food in Pittsburgh, it’s your own damn fault. This place is overflowing with good options, you just have to look around.
The looking around part is key. As is the case with many restaurants, it’s often the hard-to-spot place that is worth the extra effort. In larger cities, Asian restaurants pop up in every nook and cranny, many of them without obvious signage, some without signage at all. The names and exteriors of these places are usually less than memorable, something that does not lure in new customers and may prevent possible returning customers. (Seriously, there is a restaurant in DC’s Chinatown that I have been trying to return to for years.)
Anyway, this is a long rambling way of explaining why I could walk past Vietnam’s Pho in the Strip District for years and never realize it was there. That is, until one hungry night in the Strip found me and a friend wandering about, assessing our options.
It was getting to be close to 8 pm, and I was worried that our window for most food options was getting smaller and smaller. We strolled down Penn Avenue in the opposite direction of most of the nightlife. We were thinking sushi. I knew that there was a place farther down the road that was probably open at least until nine or ten. I also remembered a little hole in the wall that we could possibly try. What we found instead was a bright white sign that lured us in with an inevitable promise: Vietnam’s Pho.
First, let me admit, I trust signs. Probably to an absurd degree. If it bills itself as “authentic” chances are that I will want to try it out. Also, the more straight-forward (i.e. rundown) an exterior, the more likely I am to want to go inside. So while my friend might have opted for the sushi bar down the street, I made a beeline for the double doors and we were soon seated at a table in the modest interior decor of Vietnam’s Pho.
The interior was comfortably familiar in the way many Asian restaurants are: fairly minimal with the few gaudy embellishments here and there, television tuned to a foreign variety show, small marbled lucite bar. The staff was small and efficient. We were seated with menus in hand within seconds of entering the restaurant.
We were pretty ravenous. We had a plate of spring rolls before we even had looked at the entrees. They were fairly standard spring rolls: crispy outside, soft, shredded insides. The insides were shredded smaller than is usually found in spring rolls, making them easier to bite but less interesting texture-wise.
The spring rolls made a comeback in my dining partner’s dish, a vermicelli noodle dish called Bun Cha Dio. This time, the unremarkable texture was a strong point, as a more texturally complex spring roll would have overloaded a dish that already had enough varying tastes to spare. The flavors were perfectly met: the slight saltiness of the roll, the cool even flavor of the noodles, and the light ginger garlic sauce that barely registers at first bite, then, as it sinks in, becomes more and more apparent. The simplicity of the dish – basically noodles with a few shredded veggies and spring roll pieces thrown on top – emphasized the freshness of the ingredients and the lighter flavors that are often concealed in heavier noodle dishes.
Our waitress recommended the traditional beef pho that is popular with their new customers, but I was hungry for something slightly different, so I went with a pork and seafood mixed pho. The broth was well seasoned and jarring, bringing together the milder elements of the dish (from the bland noodles to the crisp chives). A squeeze of lime and some hoisin sauce pulled the flavor of the broth out even more. The only disappointment in the dish was the meat: while the slices of tofu were crispy on the edges and pleasingly soft, lending the dish a nice in between textural offering, the other meat elements of the dish were bland and offered little to the overall pho, aside from added protein.
How did the Vietnam’s Pho titular dish compare to similar local offerings? Well, I’ve never had the pho at Mekong, so I’m going to hold off naming the best of the city, but it definitely trumped the tasty, but less filling offering from Tram’s Kitchen (which is comparably priced, maybe even more expensive since I was last there). Is it the best pho I’ve had yet? Nope. Seattle’s huge amount of pho restaurants aside, the best pho I’ve ever had was in London. I can’t say it exactly what makes it so vivid – a dash of magic, perhaps, or maybe just a shitload of sodium – but it’s what I return to as a point of comparison.
But very rarely do our comparisons get trumped, because these notable dishes are flavored by the very moments they exist within. This is the problem with comparison: We are not simply comparing dish to dish, we are comparing experience to experience. That same soup eaten in London may taste differently to me years later. Perhaps it would have tasted differently to me if I had visited the restaurant a day later or day earlier, or maybe a few hours further into the day. I can never tell if it was the best pho or the best moment for eating pho (probably a little bit of column a, little bit of b), but I can hardly ask to replicate said experience in a little Vietnamese restaurant in the Strip.
But if you’re looking to get a good bowl of pho – or a decent Vietnamese dish in general – pay a visit to Vietnam’s Pho in the Strip District. It offers a little of the familiar, a little of the ordinary, and a little something different.