Recent Posts

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.


Post a Comment