They’re some of the biggest crawfish you’ve ever seen – 6 to 8 inches long from tail to tip of claw, just nine of them in this 1-pound order. A couple have claws as big as most crawfish. Slathered with an aggressively Cajun-spiced sauce, their garnet shells riddled with shards of garlic, they’re served unceremoniously in the stainless steel baking pan they were cooked in. No garnish, no side.
With a little imagination, you can almost picture yourself sitting on somebody’s back porch deep in bayou country.
OK, make that a lot of imagination. The setting isn’t Spanish moss and a gator-infested swamp but potted bamboo plants, a tropical aquarium and a 3-foot-tall golden laughing Buddha on a pedestal. The music isn’t zydeco but Asian techno pop (playing at a mercifully low volume). You’re sitting in the tidy dining room of Pho & Crawfish 79, a Vietnamese restaurant that opened last November in a North Raleigh strip mall.
The crawfish are on the menu because owner Sa Le became a fan while visiting friends in Louisiana. He also offers steamed snow crab legs and Cajun-spiced shrimp.
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The rest of the menu offers a survey of the traditional fare of Le’s native Vietnam, including an extensive selection of the restaurant’s namesake noodle soup. The classic beef version is available in 15 variations, from simple pho tai nam (thinly sliced brisket and eye of round) to pho dac biet (the works: eye of round, brisket, shank, tendon, tripe, flank and meatballs). What they all share in common is a cinnamon-tinged broth that owes its soul-satisfying depth to simmering beef bones for several hours. All come with a side plate of the classic garnishes: bean sprouts, basil, fresh jalapeño, lime wedges and cilantro (or its close flavor cousin, culantro). Mix these into the soup according to taste, along with any of the thoughtfully labeled condiments on the table.
There’s also a popular chicken variation (pho ga), as well as a couple of enticingly grease-slicked pork noodle soups that, while technically not pho, are well worth dipping a spoon and a pair of chopsticks into. The noodle soups only come in one size, by the way. The bowl isn’t as big as the child’s-swimming-pool size that some restaurants bring you when you order a large, but it’ll fill you up.
Another traditional favorite – and sure to become even more popular as the weather warms up – is the vermicelli bowl (bun), a toss-your-own warm noodle salad available with your choice of several topping combinations. I’m partial to the grilled pork and “crispy egg roll” (cha gio) combo.
The menu offers plenty of alternatives for those not inclined to take the meal-in-a-bowl route. The cha gio are a winning starter option in their own right. “Fried Crispy Bun” (banh bao chien gion) is another rewarding riff on the minced-pork-in-a-crispy-shell theme. Fresh spring rolls can be hit or miss, depending on how far in advance they’ve been made. The soft rice paper wrapper is famously unforgiving, and becomes dry and chewy in minutes – as was the case on one of the two occasions I ordered them.
Entrees, listed under the “House Special Dish” heading, cover a broad spectrum from shrimp fried rice to grilled pork with fish sauce to deep-fried crispy quail. Seasonal fish simmered in caramel sauce, served for two or more, makes a memorable feast if you can persuade someone to share it with you. Stir-fried beef with lemongrass gets a respectable rendering (though the first Vietnamese restaurant that prepares this dish with an appreciable amount of lemongrass will probably earn an extra half star on that accomplishment alone).
For lighter appetites (or a quick lunch), banh mi are deservedly popular. Served on a delicately crusty baguette, they’re generously filled with pickled carrots, cucumbers, jalapeños, cilantro and your choice of meat. You won’t go wrong with the salty-sweet glazed grilled pork, but by all means go for the braised bacon if you’re in the mood to walk on the wild side.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the offering expands to include a handful of special dishes. One of these is bun bo Hue, a beef noodle soup named for the city in central Vietnam where it originated. Bearing only superficial resemblance to pho, bun bo Hue is a rustic, fiery, grease-slicked brew chockablock with slices and chunks of beef (occasionally including a knuckle) and enough red chiles to dye the soup a deep mahogany.
Of course, if it’s fiery you’re after, there’s always the crawfish. Sa Le has them flown in on ice (“never frozen,” he proudly notes), so you can count on their freshness. There’s no guarantee that the ones you get will be as big as the ones I scored, but you can count on the sauce delivering the spicy goods. Did I mention that a 1-pound order costs $10.95? Sure, twisting the crawfish apart and prying out their tail meat (not to mention sucking on the heads, for you mudbug aficionados) is messy work. There’s a reason they bring a roll of paper towels with your order. But it’s worth the effort.
Oh, and you’ll want to order a side of rice. There’s only so much of that sauce you’ll get in your mouth by licking your fingers.
Pho & Crawfish 79
3310 Capital Blvd., Raleigh
Atmosphere: Tidy, cheery strip mall Asian
Noise level: Low to moderate
Service: Welcoming, generally attentive with occasional minor lapses
Recommended: Pho, crawfish, banh mi, bun bo Hue (only served on weekends)
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of eight or more
Other: No alcohol; 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.