Get your own bowl
Part of the fun of eating Vietnamese is shrouded in adventure: Chomping on ingredients you can’t find at a burger or pizza shack, like an icy drink made with crushed, exotic fruits or a dish of sweet cakes flavored with tuber pulp. Feeling particularly exploratory, I set my compass toward a fairly new restaurant, Pho Saigon, on East Central. I actually went in for dinner the second day it was open in February, but I didn't know it. I remember thinking the service was flawless and the food well-prepared—not hallmarks of a place that's been in business for 48 hours.
Upon my most recent visit, I was glad to see the addition of large potted plants: They make the dining room feel comfortable and complement the restaurant's yellow walls and cherry-stained wood furniture. The traditional setup on each table includes an especially lovely holder with tiny finger bowls, Asian-style soup spoons, chopsticks and a boatload of condiments in matching containers.
The service was virtually flawless again. Our server was charming and funny, despite a language barrier. She even brought me my first longan drink ($2.50). Over ice, it tasted like a rich, sweet tea with little chunks of fruit pulp floating in the glass. Long-ngan means “dragon’s eyes" in Cantonese, and I could see why. When peeled, the small, round fruit's seeds glint through translucent pulp, like lizard eyes. They have a syrupy, brown sugar flavor that's akin to the better-known lychee.
I started off with a set of egg rolls ($4 for four) and spring rolls ($3 for two rolls, $5.75 for four). The egg rolls were small but beautiful, served on a square plate garnished with red leaf lettuce, fresh basil and cilantro. One corner was adorned with a small stack of shredded, pickled carrots and daikon radish.
The spring rolls here didn’t harbor any unusual secrets, but they were particularly plump and picture-perfect. Transparent rice paper let pink shrimp, shaved pork and finely shredded lettuce peek through. The inside filling was also densely packed with chilled rice vermicelli and bean sprouts, with a flash of chopped mint that made the rolls taste very fresh indeed.
For the main attraction, I settled on seafood noodle soup (regular $6.95, large $7.95), and dry rice noodles with lemon grass and chili-seasoned beef ($6.25). My seafood soup was a tempting mixture of spiced broth, rice noodles, shrimp, imitation crab, fried and gently sliced fish balls, quail eggs and tons of the requisite fresh herbs, raw bean sprouts and lime wedges. The thinly sliced beef was quality stuff, too—toothsome without being chewy, with a perfumed lemongrass flavor.
There were no desserts listed on the Pho Saigon menu, but after finishing our heaping dinners and quizzing our server, she judiciously brought out some cassava cake. The dense, sticky slices of pale-yellow cake tasted a lot like tapioca, or maybe a custard. It turned out to be the crown jewel of my entire meal.
Long after I’d gone home with boxes of fragrant leftovers and extra cassava cakes (I’m a pig) I did the late-night Google-intellectual thing. I discovered tapioca comes from cassava, also known as manioc and yucca root. The cake tasted like tapioca because that's what it was, essentially; tapioca enriched with sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks and coconut cream. I also learned the word pho means “your own bowl,” because it's one of the Vietnamese meals where food is served to one person at a time—not shared around the table in a communal way. I went to bed with a full belly, feeling better about my cassava cake hoarding tendencies. Another culinary mystery explained, pho sure.