Go for the pho, not for the Japanese steakhouse

CorrespondentFebruary 15, 2013 

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    Pho and Japanese Steakhouse

    2815 Brentwood Road, Raleigh


    Cuisine: Vietnamese, Japanese

    Rating: *1/2

    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: strip mall Asian on a budget

    Noise level: low

    Service: variable

    Recommended: Vietnamese, especially pho

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Pho and Japanese Steakhouse – it’s a mouthful of a name for a restaurant, to be sure. On the bright side, at least you’re not left guessing about what’s on the menu.

Nor can you fault first-time restaurateur Louis Tran for hitching the wagon of his native Vietnamese fare to the trendy vehicle of Japanese cuisine. Powered by the seemingly unstoppable twin engines of hibachi and sushi, it’s a temptation that a wide variety of Asian restaurateurs, from Thai to Korean, have found impossible to resist.

Too often, though, that vehicle turns out to be a lemon. The diluted effort invariably yields uneven results, with the Japanese fare – which, let’s face it, is there merely to provide marketing traction – rarely rising above mediocrity. Over time, it can even be a drag on a restaurant’s efforts to find a following for the cuisine that is the real reason for its opening.

Just three months after opening, Pho and Japanese Steakhouse is already looking like a poster child for the phenomenon. Never in my experience have I encountered a restaurant where the disparity between the two cuisines is so great. And I’m clearly not the only one, judging by the big bowls of pho served to the overwhelming majority of customers when I’ve visited.

No wonder. In the three months since its opening, those customers have already discovered that the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup is the restaurant’s main draw.

The broth – made from scratch with long-simmered beef bones and subtly redolent of cinnamon, anise and ginger – is richly flavorful even before you begin doctoring it to taste. To that end, you’re provided a generous plateful of fresh herbs, jalapeños, bean sprouts and lime wedges. Add hoisin and Sriracha sauce if you like, and you’ve got a meal in a bowl (available with your choice of traditional add-ins, from simple sliced beef to a nose-to-tail medley of beef, tendon, meatballs and tripe) that’s at once exotic and deeply satisfying.

The menu also offers chicken and crabmeat variations on the pho theme, as well as a handful of other Vietnamese appetizers, noodle dishes and entrees. If you’re not in the mood for a big bowl of soup, lemongrass beef – amped up with slivers of the citrusy herb and slices of fresh jalapeño – should satisfy. Or maybe a Vietnamese seafood chow fun – a colorful tangle of thick noodles, shrimp, scallops, Asian broccoli and red bell pepper under a scattering of cilantro and scallion.

Goi cuon, delicate summer rolls filled with shrimp, noodles, cucumber and basil, are a worthy starter option. So are crispy spring rolls (cha gio), which are available in chicken and shrimp versions.

Venture onto the Japanese side of the menu, however, at your own risk. Hibachi rib-eye, ordered medium-rare and served on the far side of medium-well, left me wondering why the server bothered asking how I’d like the beef done. Hibachi scallops were only marginally better. (Hibachi and teriyaki dishes are prepared in the kitchen. Don’t let the restaurant’s name mislead you into expecting showy knife-wielding chefs at teppanyaki tables.)

Mediocre shrimp tempura did little to redeem the kitchen. The sloppy knife work and slipshod assembly of a rainbow roll told me all I needed to know about the sushi.

Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find a Japanese dish that measured up to the Vietnamese offering.

Service is consistently friendly and eager to please, though the levels of experience and familiarity with the menu vary widely.

Decor is what you might call strip-mall-Asian-on-a-budget, in shades of red and black. It’s pleasant enough, though the large space can feel a bit barren when the dining room is nearly empty.

Which it has been when I’ve visited, no doubt in part owing to the location in a strip mall that has seen better days. Even Fortune Palace, long considered one of the area’s best Chinese restaurants, succumbed in the space now occupied by Pho and Japanese Steakhouse after an almost 20-year run.

On the other hand, a longstanding Mexican restaurant is still going strong a couple of doors down in the same mall. With prices for a first-rate bowl of pho on a par with a Tex-Mex combination plate, there’s no reason that Pho and Japanese Steakhouse couldn’t thrive here.

Maybe the restaurant’s clunky name is the problem after all. I’m thinking it wouldn’t hurt to jettison the last three words. or

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