Rising on a cloud of steam from the bowl of pho that was just set before you, the aromas of cinnamon and star anise are so subtle that you aren’t entirely certain that you aren’t imagining them. You know that these spices are traditional in pho, but you’ve heard that no two recipes for this classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup are precisely the same.
At Pho Vietnam, the recipe appears to be guided by the premise that spices should play a secondary role, singing their exotic backup chorus at the level of a whisper to the real star of the show: beef bones and trimmings, simmered for hours to extract every last scrap of meaty flavor.
Or maybe the owners are just trying to broaden the appeal of a cuisine known for its bold flavors, tempering them to suit the mostly Western palates in the neighborhoods of West Raleigh and Cary, where Pho Vietnam opened late last year. KimChi “KC” Nguyen, the “mom” in the mom-and-pop team that run this unassuming eatery in the old Hotpoint Deli building across from South Hills Mall, certainly does her part. Greeting and serving customers with a charming mix of efficiency and hospitality that makes newcomers feel instantly comfortable, she’s happy to answer questions about the food and the restaurant.
She’ll confirm that the pho does indeed contain the spices you suspected, along with a touch of clove and a few other spices. She’ll tell you that her husband, Loi Le, does the cooking, and that he puts the pot on the fire for pho long before the restaurant opens every morning. She’ll proudly note that he goes the extra mile in the direction of clean flavor by cooling the broth and removing much of the fat before reheating it and adding noodles, beef cut(s) of choice and a garnish of chopped cilantro and scallion to order.
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The “less is more” philosophy isn’t limited to pho, but applies pretty much across the board to a streamlined menu dominated by noodle soups and noodle dishes with a supplemental smattering of appetizers, rice plates and banh mi. That’s not to say that you’ll leave with feeling short-changed. You might even come away with a new appreciation for the lightness and purity of flavor that are possible in Vietnamese cuisine.
Fresh spring rolls, for one, are markedly lighter than most, thanks in large measure to a filling whose proportion favors fresh lettuce over vermicelli as a backdrop for jumbo shrimp. It’s almost liking eating a salad, albeit a salad wrapped in translucent rice paper, with peanut dipping sauce for a dressing.
At first blush, banh mi appear to be a little light on fillings. After a couple of bites, though, you realize that the combination of meat, pickled vegetables, fresh jalapeño, cilantro and mayo on a locally baked baguette is just about right. Filling options for these Vietnamese sandwiches include lemongrass beef, pork (roast or barbecue), paté, and – my current favorite – Vietnamese ham and egg.
The baguette makes another appearance alongside a bowl of cari ga, a Vietnamese chicken curry that’s milder than the familiar curries of India and Thailand, and a shade sweeter. Vietnamese custom is to dip the bread in the soupy curry, which isn’t traditionally served with rice. The ever-accommodating Nguyen will happily substitute rice, but do yourself a favor: try the baguette.
Vermicelli noodle dishes will be familiar to most fans of Vietnamese cuisine, and the ever-popular combination with barbecue pork and egg roll gets a solid rendering here. Vermicelli with lemongrass chicken is tasty enough, too, though it’s hardly “spicy” as the menu promises.
Neither is bun rieu, which the menu describes as “spicy crab vermicelli soup.” Don’t let that deter you from ordering the dish, which features a large, savory mound of minced crab and pork, surrounded by a mild broth swimming with noodles, scallions, tomatoes, and chopped cilantro.
The spiciest dish I’ve yet to discover at Pho Vietnam – and as it happens, one of the best – is bun bo Hue, a beef noodle soup named for the city in central Vietnam where it originated. If “beef noodle soup” strikes you as identical to the description of pho, rest assured that the resemblance is only superficial. Bun bo Hue is much more rustic, a mahogany-dark, oil-slicked brew studded with petal-thin slices of lean beef and caramelized onion. Bursting with flavor as it is, though, bun bo Hue shouldn’t prove overwhelmingly spicy for any but the most delicate of palates.
Come to think of it, those palates might find comfort in thinking of the food at Pho Vietnam as “Vietnamese with training wheels.” And when you’re ready for the training wheels to come off, you can always reach for that bottle of Sriracha on the table.