Monday, April 09, 2007

Phở Vinam

I went to visit former colleagues and fellow students at UC Riverside today, and made a beeline for the nearby University Village. This is the stereotypical cookie cutter McMall that features several restaurants, a beauty salon or two, a bookstore, a textbook store, and two Starbucks (I thopught they would've gone to three by this time). I wanted Indian for lunch, so I headed for my favorite Indian restaurant in Riverside. I was expecting my reaction to be along the lines of:

"Aaaah, this buffet really takes me back."*

Instead, my reaction was more like:

"GASP. They CLOSED it!?

The generically named Taj Mahal restaurant is now known as Phở Vinam, a Vietnamese joint that sells phở - lots and lots of phở. Actually they sell lots of other dishes, too, but phở is their specialty.

There was such a bewildering assortment of goodies on the menu - and the waiter did offer to help explain it, but I declined - that I just got glassy-eyed. But I finally settled on an appetizer, an entrée and a drink. The drink was easy - just a Thai iced tea (trà thái). A delicious, smooth and SWEET Thai iced tea (though I did have a better one at Thai Landing on Baltimore's own Charles Street).

For my appetizer, I chose the Vietnamese egg rolls (chả giò), five very tightly wrapped and deep-fried with veggies and (I believe) pork inside. Next to them came a big supply of fresh lettuce leaves, shredded carrot slices and cilantro. I wasn't 100% sure, but I think I was supposed to wrap the egg rolls in the lettuce. So I did that. It tasted pretty good, especially with the thin and pungent sauce that came with it. It was too sweet to be fish sauce (nước mắm), I think, though fish sauce could definitely have been an ingredient.

The mains course was the super-hot phở tái nạm gầu, which is rare steak with well-done flank and brisket swimming in rice noodle soup (if it's still open we can apparently find this dish as close as Catonsville's Phở #1). The broth is so hot that the steak, much of which was blood-red and definitely undercooked, cooks in the soup. It was fine for me to wait and let it cook while I finished off the egg rolls, occasionally poking the beef with my chopsticks so I could submerge it under the hot broth. When I was done with the appetizer, I dove into the phở. The beef was very tender and flavorful in a way that I just don't find much beef to be when I eat out (which is why I often avoid it, it just does nothing for me). There were not as many noodles as I had wanted, but that's not so bad. I already had little enough room trying to fit even a fraction of the bean sprouts that they brought me, along with some jalapeño slices (one really did a number on my mouth) and lime wedges. It was quite tasty.

In the end, I expected to pay 11.65 before tax (phở for 4.75, egg rolls for 4.95, and Thai tea for 1.95), but the waiter brought out a slightly inflated bill for about $12.10. I figured it was tax, until I paid the total with tax, which came to about $13.50. This raised an eyebrow, but it wasn't that much and the food was good enough to be worth it, so I paid it anyway. But if you do find yourself at Phở Vinam, ask about the prices on the menu. They seem to have magically gone up since they printed it.

Oh, contrary to what some reviewers have said recently, they do take cards.