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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Columbia Eats: Pho Viet

Pho-Viet opened in Columbia over two years ago, bringing the first real taste of Vietnamese cuisine to the city limits. The restaurant is actually a small chain imported from California. With three shops currently open (two in California, one in Columbia), and a fourth location due in our very own Five Points location this August, Pho-Viet has been winning the hearts of the local citizens with its fresh, flavorful, and authentic Vietnamese dishes.

This blogger, however, has yet to be won. As a Vietnamese-American, my expectations were high - perhaps unfairly so, but high nonethless. Would my latest adventure to Pho Viet win me over?

Walking into the former Zestos location, the first thing most people notice about the restaurant is the decor. A semi-Hawaiian themed decoration, it actually is one of the nicer Vietnamese restaurants I've been to, and noticeably different from your average pho stop. Despite how relatively small the place is, there is ample seating and plenty of breathing room.

Our party of three on our latest outing sat down and got straight to the drinks. One of the many qualities of a Vietnamese restaurant is the great selection of drinks on hand, two popular choices being iced coffee with condensed milk and bubble tea - a smoothie-esque mix with chewy tapioca pearls on the bottom. If you've never had Vietnamese food before, know that textures are a big part of the cuisine - you'll encounter all kinds of interesting things that will keep you guessing. The tapioca pearls definitely can be hit-and-miss with newcomers, but is an experience nonetheless. Both drinks are almost impossible to mess up, and the extra condensed milk thrown in here only makes it better.

The menu features all the usual items and some surprising choices on the special menu for those who want to take a big cultural jump (I believe goat is even on the list for those adventurous enough. Yum! Okay, I've never had it myself, but hey it could be good!). Those looking for some pure and simple Vietnamese food, however, should find all their favorites on the main menu. After glancing through the menu, I went for a big bowl of "bun" with grilled pork and egg rolls while my friend decided to go straight for the traditional beef pho.

Pho is as close to a national dish as you can get with Vietnamese food. Essentially noodles in a rich, beef or chicken broth, it comes with a variety of thinly-sliced meats that have been stewing away in the broth for several hours, making for a rich, powerful flavor. Usually a breakfast item in Vietnam, it has become a lunch/dinner item here in the United States. The pho here doesn't disappoint; filled with slices of thinly-cut beef and served piping hot with a side of bean sprouts and basil, Pho-Viet lives up to its name and gets the dish right, and thankfully so. That being said, those coming from out-of-town might find this pho a bit on the underwhelming side. It's not the best broth I've ever encountered, but it still has a bit of sweetness and flavor to it to make it passable. Those new to the dish will definitely be satisfied with this version.

Bun is a noodle dish without any broth or liquid. Usually piled high with meats, fresh bean sprout, and pickled carrots and daikon (a white radish), it serves as an extremely fresh and filling dish. To eat, take the fish sauce that comes with the dish and pour right over the noodles and dig right in. While the grilled pork in my portion was generous and flavorful, it turned out to be a little too overseasoned with sugar and salt. The pork was also a bit too large; I had to dig in there with a knife to cut the meat into more edible sizes before really getting into the dish - something that usually doesn't happen at other Vietnamese restaurants. The vegetables and herbs managed to salvage things, but I came away somewhat disappointed on the whole.

The third member of our party decided to keep things light and go for a double appetizer: the "goi cuon" and crispy spring rolls. "Goi cuon" is a unique dish to most; similar to an egg roll, it is a rice paper wrap that contains noodles similar to that in the "bun" dish, shrimp, sometimes boiled pork, lettuce, and herbs such as basil. As mentioned earlier, Vietnamese food often revolves around texture, and goi cuon is no exception. The rice paper provides a chewy bite while the peanut sauce that comes with appetizer gives the dish a powerful, nutty taste. Those looking for something healthy to dig into will find no better option then this. The crispy spring rolls here are a bit uncommon in their own right: stuffed with a large shrimp, these rolls are deep fried till golden and served with a side of fish sauce. You can eat them as is, but traditionally Vietnamese usually wrap them in the lettuce that is provided along with pickled vegetables for a big crunchy bite. Both appetizers are definitely filling and are a great way to start any meal.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Pho Viet
Atmosphere: Relaxed. Strangely Hawaiian even.
Cost: Expensive in relation to other Vietnamese eateries.
Average for Columbia. (Sad face.) $7-10.
Try: Pho, Vietnam's national dish. Goi cuon (spring rolls) offer a
refreshing appetizer while the crispy spring rolls with
shrimp offer a savory option.
Don't: "Bun thit nuong." Harsh seasoning
and large slices makes for a difficult chew.

The Final Verdict
I have mixed emotions about Pho Viet. Being Vietnamese-American myself, I couldn't help but be extra critical of the place. It technically isn't that great compared to all the pho restaurants in nearby cities like Atlanta or Charlotte. It's not the worst, but it certainly doesn't rank among the best. On the otherhand, with it being the only pho restaurant in town it definitely is a welcome sight and is perhaps the most authentic Asian food you can find in the city.

Price-wise, it can get a bit on the expensive side. Most dishes cost between $8 to $9 dollars, with appetizers ranging around $4. Compared with other Asian restaurants, however, you get a lot more bang for your buck here, and a healthier meal as well. The service is kind and helpful, ensuring you know exactly what your getting and explaining how to eat it (which happens more often then you can believe!). If you are pining for Vietnamese food, or are simply just interested in tasting something truly different from the norm, don't be afraid to venture out to Pho-Viet. With the new location in the Five Points area opening in August, you'll have no excuse for missing out on this cultural experience. Those looking for their lowbrow Chinatown noodle goodness, however, will have to make due until their next trip to ATL.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Columbia Eats: Nick's House of Pizza

I had heard of Nick's House of Pizza vaguely through friends and from reviews in other Columbia food blogs, but when my friend and I pulled up to the restaurant on a whim this past week, it was safe to say we had mixed reactions going into this. Located in what feels like the middle of nowhere in West Columbia - which pretty much is the middle of nowhere for local residents - the low-brow venue cast a bit of doubt on our party of two.

Tucked away in a pretty old building compared to its neighbors in nearby downtown, Nick's felt more like a small town restaurant then anything else - certainly not a bad thing though. After being seated, we opened the menu and were pleasantly greeted with a host of Greek options. I immediately turned off my original pizza idea and jumped into a Gyro and Souvlaki platter with beef while my friend decided to stay stateside to try out their special Hamburger Steak.

Our complementary salads arrived first. Topped with their Greek dressing, it turned out to be a pretty satisfying start to the meal - something I rarely say for a salad starter. The dressing, a sweet and sour oil mixture, definitely brightened the salad and gave it a nice bite. My only critique had to have been the olive, which offset things for a moment. It may just have been me, but it definitely cut into what was an otherwise okay beginning.

Our dinners soon arrived hot out of the oven. Served with a side of oven-roasted potatoes, it was safe to say that I got my money's worth in the gyro/souvlaki dinner. This was a love/hate relationship though. The lamb and pita bread, first of all, were to die for. The bread was light, warm and crispy, perfectly complimenting the lamb which satisfied to no end. The tzatziki sauce that came with the dish had a powerful first kick, giving me the pucker face for a moment, but several bites later I couldn't get enough of it. Its extra lemony bite went well with the lamb, adding a nice layer of depth to the dish. The souvlaki beef, however, was a dry mess. Tough to chew down, and not at all compatible with anything on the plate, it proved to be a major letdown, especially considering that it cornered a large portion of the plate. The oven roasted potatoes, at first, were surprisingly good. Generously seasoned and roasted just right, it felt like a good match with the dinner. In the end though, it came to be a bit too salty to finish.

Things certainly looked brighter over on my friend's side of the table. 'Nick's Hamburger Steak', as they called their special version, definitely isn't your average joe. Instead of the traditional grilled onions, this hamburger steak came piled high with melted feta cheese and a few slices of tomato. To quote my friend: "This is some good hamburger steak". Imagine a huge bite of your favorite hamburger along with a hint of fresh tomato and creamy melted cheese, and I'm sure you'll agree that there is simply no going wrong with this one. Definitely a winner.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Nick's
Atmosphere: Family affair.
Cost: In relation to quantity, worth it! $7-14.
Try: The gyro, pizza, and/or Hamburger Steak.
Goodness found all over menu really.
Don't: Beef slovaki. Too dry. Most of Greek menu does
not meet the height set by the Italian side to be honest.
Don't Forget: To check out the desert setup at the
front desk. Delicious bites waiting!

The Final Verdict
Despite some of the shortcomings in the Gyro/Souvlaki platter, we walked away from Nick's House of Pizza with a sense of satisfaction. The restaurant was fairly busy for an off-hour time of the day, which is a great sign that they know what their doing. The pizza has been claimed to be one of the best in town - though I have not tried for myself - but don't be afraid to venture through their varied menu of specials. On the Greek side, if must, do stick with the gyro. Nick's definitely shines in the Italian section though, and the orders that came fast and flying around us certainly reflected that. The menu is also varied enough price-wise to fit anyone's bill thanks to their long list of subs and salads, but for those looking for the real goods, definitely aim big and get your money's worth.

On our way out, we noticed a revolving tray of deserts. We didn't have time - or stomach - to try out anything, but everything looked absolutely delicious. The list of deserts aren't on the main menu, so definitely be wary of it on the way out during your next visit and let me know how it goes!

Nick's House of Pizza Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Columbia Eats: Drakes Duck-In

Sometimes (actually, more often then not) the best places to eat are the most unexpected locations. Drake's Duck-In, lovingly referred to as "Ducks" by fellow comrades and myself, may be the best bang for your buck anywhere in the downtown area, but one glance at it may be a bit of a turnoff. Compared to the lavish-looking Gotham Bagel down the street, or the Main St. stockpile of restaurants, Ducks is most likely not the average pick for a first-timer in the area. Those in the know, however - like their next door neighbors in the Free Times building - know that Ducks contains some of the best burgers, sandwiches, and chicken in area - all for well under the six dollar average for downtown eateries.

Open early for breakfast up to 5:30 in the evening, Ducks features a fairly extensive menu of classic fast food items. The morning items are standard fair: biscuits, or a host of sandwich options with any combination of sausage, bacon, egg, and cheese. The great part is they don't have the plastic, processed taste of McDonalds, making for a much more appealing start to the day. Things aren't all rosy though: the sausage sandwich with toast, for example, was a bit on the greasy side.

The real reason to come to Ducks doesn't begin till lunch time, when the colossal chicken sandwich becomes available. I remember reading in the Free Times that Columbia chose Chick Fil' A as the best chicken sandwich in town. These folk have obviously never been to Ducks. Juicy, and twice the size of any Chick Fil'A sandwich they can muster up, Duck's chicken sandwich simply annihilates the competition. Best grabbed at the peak of lunch hour when things are flying fast and furious off the grill, the chicken sandwich easily is the number one reason to come to this local establishment. Be wary about eating it at the crazy off hours of the day when the grill starts cooling down the back though. It can get a little on the dry side then, but is still impressive nonetheless.

While the chicken sandwich reigns supreme in my book, the rest of the menu doesn't disappoint. The cheeseburger, though simple in looks, gets a generous thumbs up thanks to its special slaw/mustardy/mayonnaise spread. The menu also features some pretty decent fried chicken and a vinegary barbeque sandwich that definitely stands out as being a little different from the norm. Sides include fries - never too salty, and always hot and fresh - and coleslaw, which I have come to believe may be the best in town for its light, sweet bite.

Last, but not least, there's the desert. Besides the ice cream (oh, they serve ice cream by the way!), tucked away in the back are some fantastic slices of New York style cheesecake and lemon meringue pie that you will not want to miss out on. If you have room for a taste, don't be afraid to take it. The lemon pie has a remarkably fresh bite that will surely liven your senses for the rest of the afternoon.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Duck's
Atmosphere: Fast food casual.
Cost: Like highway robbery. $3-6.
Must Try: The Chicken Sandwich. A Duck's signature.
Don't: Forget about the rest of the menu either.
Lots of fast food comfort to choose from.

The Final Verdict
For only around five bucks, and at about ten times the quality of any average fast food joint, you simply can't go wrong with Drakes Duck-In. While the menu may not be the most 'health friendly', if your looking for quality fast food (yes, there is such a thing) in the downtown area, look no further. You'll come hungry, but unlike Wendy's or McDonalds, you'll leave happy.

Drake's Duck In on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Columbia Eats: Blue Cactus Cafe

Few places are like the Blue Cactus Cafe in Columbia, SC. Just minutes from the University of South Carolina, the restaurant has been serving up authentic Korean cooking with a Southwest twist since the mid-90s.

The first thing you can't help noticing before hitting the menu is the unusual setup of the cafe. Set in almost a pueblo-like room, it certainly separates itself from the rest of the Five Points establishments from the get-go. The walls are littered with local artwork and fan mail from past years. A hot sauce cabinet divides the seating area with the kitchen front (all of which are of course available to any daring customers).

While the menu is loaded with a great variety of choices that includes southwest cooking to the Korean stir-frys and stews, there's no doubt that the first thing that came our group's mind the moment we sat down was the Bee Bim Bob. Covered with five different Korean vegetables and choice of meat along with a fried egg on top, it's the staple dish of the restaurant and a surefire choice anyone who is hungering for some authentic Korean. If you've never had it before, grab a spoonful of the red pepper paste given to you on the side with the dish and mix well!

Stir-frys like the Bee Bim Bob are definitely your best bet at Blue Cactus. Packed with veggies and served with a variety of special sauces, each and every one seems to the fit the bill every time I've come. For a stranger-then-average pick, the stir-fried squid comes loaded with the main item in a rich, spicy/sweet sauce. A very filling seafood choice for the adventure seeker. Anyone looking for a strong, spicy dish to liven the palette should look towards the Kim Chi items which definitely bring the heat. Be wary of the Pork and Kim Chi dish though: it packs an extremely loaded flavor that could overwhelm timid eaters. Kim Chi lovers will rejoice, but those looking for a more subtle dish should look elsewhere.

Vegetarians will find themselves knee deep in some of the best vegetarian food around. Almost every entree on the menu can be substituted with tofu, and there are even some vegetarian specialties on the list itself that would even peek the interest of meat-lovers. The stews are usually slightly lacking in my book. The mondo and rice cake stews in particular don't hit the spot the way the stir-frys do. For a powerful dish in the category though, once again look no further then the Kim Chi, the Kim Chi Stew that is, a spicy, savory dish that will surely warm you up on those rare winter days in Columbia. The pork is a nice addition if you are pining for some meat in the dish. For anyone looking to steer away from the usual rice entrees and something a bit cooler then a stew, the clear noodle stir fry is a unique choice that will satisfy both one's curiosity and stomach. Another one of those textury kind of meals, it's basically a gloppy pile of noodles stir-fried with tons of veggies. Trust me when I say it is better then the description sounds!

The appetizers pack some interesting choices, the standout surely being the Korean dumplings. Deep-fried wontons stuffed with cabbage, beef, and onions, they make for a fantastic start to any meal. Definitely take them over the krab puffs if you had to choose. Light eaters looking for a quick bite may even be satisfied with just an order of these. The Kim Bob is other star of the show. Basically a poor man's sushi, these vegetarian bites are a great way to keep things light without having to sacrifice any satisfaction. The Kim Chi plate was a bit of a disappointment as you could get the same with the Bee Bim Bob, but those looking just to sample can definitely do so here.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Blue Cactus
Atmosphere: Pure crazy casual between the Mexican/Korean mix.
Cost: Fair. $7-10.
Try: The Bee Bim Bob for the heads-on cultural experience.
Don't: Plan on going for the stews.
Quality is in their amazing stir-fries.
Consider: A cup of green bean ice cream on the way out.
A mellow touch after a great meal.
Expect: A long wait. Blue Cactus is serious about slow cooking folks.

The Final Verdict
Blue Cactus is easily one of the my favorite restaurants in Columbia, and one of the best in the USC area. Featuring a menu full of traditional favorites from both sides of the family-owned restaurant, everyone who comes is sure to find something that suits their tastes. Those willing to go for the more authentic dishes should surely get their hands on the Bee Bim Bob if they haven't yet. Those not interested in straying too far from the border can enjoy their just as authentic and delicious southwest entrees. Make sure you bring lots of change for the parking meter if you plan to eat in though. They are devoted members of the slow-cook movement, and will take all the time they need to get your order just right. Make sure you also keep tabs on their website if you plan to eat there since they often close for family vacations, especially during the summer and winter breaks at USC.

Blue Cactus Cafe on Urbanspoon