I’m a sheltered, Midwestern food noob. I’m no foodie. So when my fiancée recommended a Vietnamese place, I initially said no. I had to be in the right mood for trying something new. A week later, no turned into yes when cabin fever took a turn for the worse, and I was tired of eating basic foods like eggs and cold cuts “all wrapped up in a tortilla” (my college standby; my roomies would joke about the contents of my tortillas forever).
So we went. As one of many unassuming buildings on Kingshighway south of Tower Grove Park, you know it’s good when you drive past with your windows down and get a noseful: the smell is delicious. Even if you aren’t looking, you’ll find it.
With a menu half-filled with Vietnamese, half with Chinese dishes, I could have gone the safe way and ordered my standby—General Tso’s or comparable—but I dove right into the experience. I’m not sure about its selection due to the fact the menu had only a handful of options in Vietnamese, but I’ll never complain about it as long as they know what they’re making. In fact, if they only offered one item, and that item melted my tongue right out of my mouth, I’d sing its praises.
The server helped us with our ordering, given I understood no Vietnamese. I ordered iced coffee (seen above), and it came with a layer of thick cream on the bottom. Delicious, robust, and kept me awake half the night even though I ate at 4 in the afternoon.
The spring rolls, an appetizer, came with a pair of shrimp nestled in each pancake, a sprig of mint lost somewhere in the shredded cabbage, and a small bowl of peanut sauce freckled with—you guessed it—peanuts. The ingredients were so fresh, so explosive in flavor, I could have made a meal off the greens alone. The mint made this appetizer taste like a candied sweet, and it was a new experience for me since I had only tasted mint in drinks and, well, breath mints. Quick note: with Korean food, and I would assume with Vietnamese food, just because the server calls it “Veggie” doesn’t mean it contains no seafood product. Veggie food often comes without red or white meat, but the sky is the limit with seafood. Make certain to verify no seafood if you are a vegetarian.
Our main dishes were called Phó, a soup made of rice noodles and onion, flat slices
of raw beef and meatballs (hot-dog-esque in its texture and flavor) that cook themselves in the hot water. Beside had a plate of basil, sprouts, lime, dandelion leaves, and jalepeños (or some other hot green pepper that looked exactly like jalepeños). The server explained how to use the Sriracha (which I’ve always called Cock sauce, given the rooster on the label) and hoisin barbecue (which, I might add, was a liberal squirt of each in the phó). He said to dip the meat in a mix of the two, as well.
If I could put one word on what this meal was to me, and what I now see Vietnamese food as, is freshness. Nothing freeze-dried,
dehydrated or wilted. Nothing came from a seasoning container. Everything was flavorful, you could season the dish to taste (which was good for the fiancée), and the meal was pretty large, given the affordable price. I’ve never had so much fresh condiments served at one time; it has made a lasting impression on me.
I had always heard about how good Phó was, and now I know why. It’s the most robust soup-in-a-meal you will ever find. You use chopsticks to eat, and a spoon to slurp up the rest. Or, for the less hand-articulate of the population, a fork is provided.
Quick note: diabetics will have a tough time with this meal. The rice noodles are as high in carbs as quinoa or actual rice, and if you don’t prepare accordingly, it will mess you up. Other reviews have spoken highly of the pork chop they offer, although I haven’t sampled it myself.
Have a place you love in the greater St. Louis area? Let me know. Comments welcome.