Category Archives: restaurants

Where Pho Art Thou

So, I recently came across a great Vietnamese restaurant in Orlando. I don’t mean an old mom and pop restaurant or the typical Orlando tourist trap that turns and burns customers through the dining room without regard to the thought of repeat customers. This is an old school Zagat rated restaurant that I had heard the locals rave about for quite a while, so I figured what the hay, I’ll give it a try.

I was assured that, being a fan of all things hot and spicy as well as a lover of Asian inspired soup & noodle dishes, the signature Vietnamese dish ‘Pho’ was the way to go.

Pho is probably Vietnam’s most well-known dish. The fragrant noodle soup topped with rare or well-cooked beef and/or brisket, tripe, shrimp or chicken served with a side of fresh veggies and herbs is unbeatable as a breakfast, lunch or dinner meal.

I remembered hearing about this stuff on ‘No Reservations’ and Bourdain referring to it as ‘the real food porn’ and ‘textural disneyland’…he also describes it as “spicy, hot, refined” and “overwhelmingly perfect”.  Being a huge fan of the Bourdain, this seemed promising on several levels.

Here is Bourdain’s description of the first pho he encountered at the Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh: (a.k.a. Saigon) “A bowl of clear hot liquid, loaded with shreds of fresh, white and pink crabmeat, and noodles is handed to me, garnished with bean sprouts and chopped fresh cilantro” accompanied by lime wedges, chili fish oil and chopped red chilis.

“Sounds good to me”, I thought to myself.

I was told to be sure to start with the summer rolls — a soft wrap filled with rice noodles, shrimp, shrimp paste, scallion and pork served with a delicious peanut sauce (I like to add sambal sauce for extra fiery goodness).

summer rolls

Summer rolls with peanut sauce

Vietnamese style summer rolls

Vietnamese style summer rolls

A side note on shrimp paste: I had heard of shrimp paste on Iron Chef one time when it was the secret ingredient. The judges in the show were commenting on what a great job the chefs had done to “suppress the smell” of the paste. I’m no Iron Chef, but I’ve got a clever way to suppress the smell. Don’t put it in your food. I might not win “Battle Shrimp paste,” but I promise you my dinner won’t smell like old shrimp either.

All jokes aside, these are seriously delicious!  The combination of the soft outer wrapper with the roast pork, fresh scallion, perfectly cooked shrimp and spicy peanut sauce make for an other- worldly experience that simply cannot be fully described.  Take my word for it, if you have yet to try these little gems, you are missing out.

Excited about the first course and hungry for more, I decided to order the ‘Special’ Pho (or Pho tai) which is  rare beef, well-done brisket, tripe, shrimp and krab with rice noodles, glass noodles and a fiery broth served with a side of bean sprouts, jalapenos, lime wedges and Thai basil.

special pho

special pho

A beautifully constructed bowl of Pho soon arrived at the table. I have to admit,  I found it slightly unsettling that the smell of the broth brought a slight tear to the eye.  As if what was inside needed to breathe. I dared to take a deep breath of the wonderful aroma, which immediately made me regret that I needed to breathe. It smelled deeply rich, complex and fiery hot all at once.  Acting quickly, I added the aforementioned garnishes and excitedly dove in. The beef and shrimp were perfectly cooked and the tripe, though a little scarce for my liking, was in fact the star of the dish…intermingling a nice fatty unctuous quality into the spicy broth.

This particular batch seemed quite a bit spicier than what had been described to me by friends, but was still absolutely wonderful. The beef, shrimp, tripe et al were all so delicious and perfectly executed that I didn’t realize exactly just HOW hot the broth was.  The custom of slurping your noodles, while fun and delicious, only added to the inferno by coating my lips with the spicy broth.  By the end of the meal, I felt as if I could have dunked my entire head into an ice bath…not that it would have helped much, I was seriously ON FIRE!  It’s difficult to describe, but if you can remember back to the very first time you made out with a Habanero chili, it’s a lot like that.

special pho2

Special pho close up

Talking with the waiter on the way out, I commented on the heat level of the pho broth…come to find out that he misunderstood my order and thought I had ordered it extra hot (m hm). Not a big deal, I was an instant fan anyway (despite nearly blowing the top of my head right off).  I’ve since returned to Little Saigon several times, tried nearly every dish on the menu, all of which are amazing and highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area.

Like Bourdain said at the end of the video ” You might find something in the great kitchens of Europe perhaps as good but you will never find anything better than this.”