Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mo Pho

After dwelling on Kim's pho for several visits during this brutal winter, I decided that it's time to move on.  The Capital Region is offering pho like never before. I remember when this was a town with a good Indian restaurant and a sort of weird Japanese restaurant and that was about the extent of our ethnic restaurants.  I am in absolute wonder about how it's all different now and there's more and more to try.  In other words: there's endless foodie adventure to be had. The down side is that there will be restaurants that will close before I have a chance to try them!

I discovered pho in a noodle shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I must admit that I can't talk about it as if I've grown up eating it. I'm glad to keep tasting to get a sense of what is offered here in our region and to be happy when I get a delicious bowl of soup. A Google search rendered these possibilities for pho: Van's, Kim's, Pho Yum, My Linh, Saigon Spring, Goodnight Noodle, and Phila Fusion between here and Saratoga Springs, via Ballston Spa. Yelp tossed in Saigon, located in Williamstown, MA.  So it looks like my adventures in pho will take me all across the region and I couldn't be happier.

Please, dear readers, if you have another place to recommend, speak up!!! Put it in the comments.

My most recent tasting is from Van's.  Since the weather has been so cold the opportunity to have a great big bowl of soup is one I haven't wanted to pass up, and Van's is easy to get to on Central Ave. between Quail and Lake.  It's an area with scads of ethnic restaurants and Van's has been around for a long time, moving out to this location from the heart of downtown many years ago. My first visit included those lettuce-wrapped spring rolls and so I was blissed out on fried rolls with nuoc nam sauce by the time the pho came to the table and I felt like I didn't give the soup its due.  Going again for more soup was the only way to reconcile this error.

Van's dining room, just  before the noontime rush

The first time I was prepared to write that the broth had a stronger beef flavor than others I have tried, and that the symphony of spices was more subdued.  My second tasting revealed that the spring rolls prior to the soup had helped to mask the subtleties of the spices in the broth.  So my second tasting allowed me to sense these marvelous aromas and flavors.  They are definitely present in Van's offering.

With Van's pho, at the top of the list of soups, one chooses the meats to be included in the broth from three choices: tai - flank steak; bo vien - beef meatballs; or chien - well done beef brisket. This is the soup I selected ($8.99), leaving the list of other soups for future visits. I tried leaving out the meatballs the first time and included them the second time. The meatballs have a more complicated flavor, of course, and the chewey texture is one that I really enjoy. They also offer more of each type of meat as a separate add-in if you wish to make this a truly big and hearty meal.   A plate arrived at the table before the soup with a huge stack of sprouts, several slices of fresh jalapenos, fresh lemon, and fresh basil leaves. The soup came with generous sprinkles of both scallion and cilantro. So if one wants total control of the flavors, one might consider what's already added in the Van's version of pho, and ask for variations before it's served. This may be important for those who have cilantro issues.

What I like most about pho is the sort of "kit" idea. You can play with your food in a way that really counts. The chef only takes it so far, then you are the boss of what the soup is going to be - there's more to do at the table.  So I feel like it's important that the broth be robust and aromatic. Van's is both of these, but it's not the strongest that I have had. One is also in control of the type of beef and the amount. The plate of condiments at Van's is the largest I have seen, so they encourage you take the flavors in many different directions. This time I wanted to understand more about how much control I had over the flavor of the soup, so I piled all the sprouts on top and took very generous portions of the hoisin sauce and the sriracha sauce.  I have always used all the basil and all the citrus, because I really love the aroma of the basil and the citrus provides that tart thing that complements the anise and the beef in the broth. Next time I won't take that many sprouts.  It's a personal thing and has to do with the bitterness of the fresh sprouts.  I felt like the bitter element went out of balance, so next time I'll know what I want.

I recommend Van's pho not based on the idea of its authenticity, which I can't discuss one way or the other.  I recommend it based on the good broth, which I feel must comprise a very good soup by itself, and the generous plate of condiments.  


Chopsticks Optional said...

If you don't mind a daytrip-ish, check out Pho 88 in Lowell, MA: http://bit.ly/1iCt1uD

LorreS said...

Thanks! I'll be going that way in May.