Monday, October 22, 2012

Eating Outside My Comfort Zone - I

I am very familiar with Chinese food. And somewhat familiar with Thai food. But I am not at all familiar with Vietnamese food. In fact, the last time Chuck and I ate in a Vietnamese restaurant was almost two years ago when our cousin Raina and her husband Jesse took us to what was then their favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix.

But two years have passed and they now have a new favorite—Pho Thanh—and it is there where the four of us gathered one Monday night for an early supper.

“As delicious as it is inexpensive, Pho Thanh has become our go-to spot for a quick and easy bite of Vietnamese food. It's pretty obvious that we're not alone, either, because this summer, Pho Thanh doubled in size…. And every time we're in the restaurant, nearly all the tables are full of diners slurping down big bowls of meat-filled pho, diving into tasty servings of bun (vermicelli noodles), or
munching on…bahn mi sandwiches that rival, yes, those served at a decidedly more famous Vietnamese sandwich shop in the Southeast Valley. For taste, value,…and cleanliness, Pho Thanh is quickly setting the standard for Vietnamese food in Phoenix” (

This nondescript (and perhaps that is an overstatement), restaurant is located in a small strip mall. Inside, the atmosphere reminds one of a high school lunch room. But the space is clean and brightly lit,
and the service, while our server was not effusive, doesn’t border on the rudeness so often found in authentically Asian restaurants.

The menu is long at over one hundred and sixty choices, so our final selections were a combination of Raina and Jesse’s favorites, dishes about which I had read about in diner reviews, and one of the few Vietnamese items with which I am familiar.

As we sat and digested the long menu, I started with a glass of salted lemonade which tasted just like the name suggests. It was interesting, but not something that I want every day. Chuck’s glass of limeade (also shown here is Raina’s iced tea) looked to be more refreshing and more suitable to rapid quaffing.

Our first choice was one that I had read about in a New Times review—the Bánh xèo Saigon crepe with pork, shrimp, and sprouts that was served with fish sauce and a plate of vegetables. New Times writer Ando Muneno describes it: “Bánh xèo starts with rice flour mixed with coconut milk and flavored with turmeric…. (The) Vietnamese, like many Asian cultures, consume turmeric because it is good for the stomach and aids digestion. It also gives the bánh xèo a vibrant yellow color and hearty flavor. Rice flour is used because of its capacity to cook up puffy and crunchy without a taste altering leavening agent like baking soda.

“Much like a crepe, bánh xèo batter is poured into a hot pan and spread into a thin layer with a quick circular flick of the pan. Working quickly, the cook piles in the filling. Thin strips of pork and shrimp halves are sprinkled into the batter and then covered with bean sprouts. The bánh xèo is then flipped closed, the sprouts allowed to steam for a moment, and then served immediately” (

The dish is served with a plate of lettuce and herbs—mint and cilantro—and a small bowl of fish sauce.

You tear off a piece of the crepe, place it on a lettuce leaf,

add some herbs, and roll everything into a tight little package which is dipped in the fish sauce.

Next was one of Raina’s favorites—Bún Chả Giò Thịt Nướng—eggrolls, grilled pork, vegetables, fish sauce, and peanuts. “Such a big name! In Vietnam, specialties are often called by detailing what’s inside. So sometimes you’ll see bún thịt nướng or bún chả giò only. Chả giò is the term used for the fried spring rolls, thịt nướng is the grilled meat and bún is the rice noodle that has the same shape as spaghetti (which is not to be called phở, which is the rice noodle that has the same shape as tagliatelle). Actually, the bun noodle used for the bún thịt nướng chả giò is more like vermicelli (but sometimes you’ll find it like spaghetti)” (

This was a large bowl of vermicelli noodles topped with carrots, cucumber slices, cilantro, ground pork patties, and small eggrolls. Raina cut the pork patties and egg rolls into smaller pieces and then tossed the whole mix together.
It was wonderful. The pork patties were similar in taste to a pot sticker stuffing with a strong garlic and ginger presence, but the flavors were intensified by cooking the patties on a very hot grill. And the dish abounded with texture—something that is very important to me.

Now for a digression. You may notice that neither of these dishes was in the least bit spicy. Jesse confirmed my suspicion that when served, Vietnamese food falls closer to the mild end of the spice continuum. But on each table was a small jar of a sweet chile paste, a small jar of smoked chile flakes in (I think) oil, and an industrial sized bottle of sriracha. Each diner makes the decision whether to spice or not.

(We will take a break before continuing with the meal tomorrow.)

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