New Vietnamese restaurants keep popping up all over town, and why not? Ever since Saigon Springs came on the scene with its divine spring rolls, I've been hooked. So hooked that it took me a while to discover that staple of Vietnamese cuisine pho.
Now, there's comfort food. A big bowl of rich, steaming beef broth perfumed with sweet clove and thin slices of meat in neat little nests of rice noodles, all served with a heaping plate of fresh summer flavors. You can season to taste by mixing in fresh jalapeo slices, snappy bean sprouts, cilantro and basil, and dress your noodles with hoisin or hot Sriracha.
So another pho show is good news, right? Certainly for those who need a quick lunch or dinner around Palmer Park and Academy boulevards, where Pho 54 now displays its grand-opening banner. Inside, families chat in Vietnamese, a flat-screen airs NFL games, and folks happily slurp noodles.
The menu is simple. Pho takes center stage, with beverages and desserts getting good billing, too. On two recent visits, we tried several versions of pho tai chin (steak and brisket), tai gan (steak and tendon) and ga (chicken). All run $5.95 for a small, $6.95 for a medium, $7.50 for a large. And all feature rich beef broth pleasantly scented with clove. Abundant fresh vegetable additions accompany, with generous portions of cinnamon basil.
The steak and brisket option (which can be simplified to just steak or just brisket) is a good one for American palates, but culinary adventurists might enjoy the tendon. Soft and cartilaginous, it ranges in texture from the unset white of a poached egg to slightly meaty. No callbacks for the chicken beef is the essence of pho, and this heady broth upstages the chicken breast, however tender and abundant.
The minimalist menu is a good thing if you like pho, not so if you don't. My guest, hard-pressed to find anything that had never had hooves, settled on the chicken teriyaki ($7.95). Tender chicken, not-too-sweet sauce and plain steamed broccoli, carrot and rice were good, but forgettable. The bun dac biet, rice noodles served with marinated and grilled shrimp and thin strips of chicken, pork and beef, was quite tasty ($7.95).
Other options are spring rolls ($2.95 for two) and Vietnamese egg rolls ($5.95 for three), both competently executed. The former were fresh and springy with a good bite of mint, the latter crisp and meaty. But Saigon Springs still steals the roll show.
You can fill up on "real food" at Pho 54, but if you don't, half the menu is devoted to sweets that get the job done in a hurry. The lineup: coconut juice ($2.75), fresh-squeezed limeade ($2.50) and a dozen flavors of bubble tea fresh fruits and veggies like avocado, mango, taro and other more conventional flavors mixed with icy non-dairy creamer and fructose, all poured over colored, giant tapioca pearls ($4.00). While we were there, one patron had his kids in giddy hysterics watching the fat tapioca pearls zipping up his straw as he drank. If you can get past the non-dairy creamer and the calorie count of bubble tea, I recommend the avocado.
Pho 54 is worth checking out, especially if you're in the neighborhood and craving comfort food. Start with hot noodles and stay for an encore of cold milk-tea with tapioca. Mmmm ... soup and carbs.