It’s almost certain that outside the big Vietnamese communities any Vietnamese restaurant you see in America has the word pho in it. People must eventually have the impression that Vietnamese eat nothing but rice noodle soup. Of course, Japanese eat nothing but sushi and Americans have only hamburgers.
Mudpie found this place earlier in Los Altos, about 10-15 minutes car ride from SLAC. We strayed from the usual pho and ordered a gargantuan set of appetizers and main courses. Starting off was the familiar goi cuon, a salad wrap with some lettuce or garden herbs, some halved shrimps (mainly for decoration), a razor blade thin slice of boiled pork, some fresh bean sprout, and a little bundle of rice vermicelli. I took a bite by itself, and the meat couldn’t quite buff the plain veggie up, so a dip into the peanut sauce nearby was essential. It was a very light appetizer, and no matter how slowly you go you’re gonna finish the roll in at most 3 minutes. I don’t know what kind of sauce they serve with in Vietnam, but the peanut sauce here is just really good.
Next came the supposedly called cha gio (stated “in rice paper” on the menu). As I had lived in Vietnam for 17 years I believe I’m qualified to judge whether a roll of cha gio is actually made of rice paper (banh trang) or the fooling wheat sheet that makes the Vietnamese cha gio synonymous with the Chinese egg roll. So here goes: “rice paper” my foot. It’s not any more rice paper than the average mediocre egg roll you find at any Chinese buffet. Can you ever find a real cha gio in America anymore? I’d give them some credit for trying: the wrapper is indeed thin. But rice paper is translucent, this is as opaque as Venus’ atmosphere. Good egg roll, but honestly, I feel cheated.
Pictured above is goi ngo sen tom thit (lotus stem salad with shrimp and pork), which appeared suspiciously in the appetizer section, since we both ate some and even took the rest home for another meal. One thing to be noticed is Vietnamese salad is nothing like our usual American garden salad or Caesar salad. The waiter is not going to ask you what kind of dressing you’d like, and you need not innocuously remind “on the side, please”. There is no reason to fret over some little Ranch or bleu cheese dressing that will cause your calorie level to shoot up, or vinaigrette to make your taste buds sour. The salad is simply soaked in a mixture of salt, lemon juice, and sugar. Every piece of lotus stem, sliced carrot, sliced onion, cilantro, even the thin slices of boiled pork and the shrimp halves, has almost the same taste of that mixture, thoroughly and evenly. The lotus stem is a little crunchy, the pork is tender and mild, but not plain in the least, topped with crushed peanuts for some nuttiness. The salad is a meal in itself, so simple and elegant. And healthy.
But we didn’t stay healthy for long. For main course we had com tay cam (English name: clay pot) and old timer bun thit nuong (cold rice vermicelli with grilled pork).
The rice came with a small cup of pho broth, which I’m not sure what to do with. I’m pretty sure the rice wasn’t cooked in the pot, only served in it, because the pot wasn’t hot and the rice was almost flaming. The first spoon was excellent, the second revealed that it’s a rather oily combination of fried rice, fried shiitake mushroom, fried Chinese sausage, and fried chicken. The pot could be smaller than your cereal bowl, but it’s like the pot of Thach Sanh, it’s so filling you keep eating layer after layer but you just can’t finish it in one sitting.
Now this had been my craving for a long time. A bowl of chargrilled pork chops atop a soft bed of bún, some bean sprout and sliced cucumber at the bottom for a taste of freshness, sprinkled crushed peanuts and many a spoonful of nuoc mam pha (fish extract diluted in water, mixed with lemon juice, salt and sugar, and very little chopped garlic). I like the bun, the nuoc mam, and the veggie, but I would whisper *just* a little disappointment with the pork. It was definitely flavorful, but it was too thinly sliced. It wasn’t grilled long enough to bring out all the flavor. And it’s a little, just a little, dry. Beside, how are you supposed to cut that monstrously wide sheet of meat with chopsticks?
This is the closest one could get to Vietnamese food from Palo Alto, and unarguably a good find (a decent one, if you’re uncompromisingly picky about real cha gio). It’s cheap and takes credit card. We didn’t have to wait long for our food to arrive, but if you expect attentive service coming to ask “Is everything okay?” and refill your water every 10 minutes, don’t come here. Vietnamese restaurants respect privacy of their customers, so no need to worry about putting food in your mouth the correct way (as there is none). The only thing that bothered me about this place was the chatty nature of the hostesses. When the restaurant wasn’t packed after prime lunch time, our ladies comfortably spilled out to each other, across the counter and tables in Vietnamese with heavy Southern accent, numerous pieces about friends and relatives. Not that many could understand them, but some background music would be more pleasant I think. See menu.
Phở Vỉ Hoa Restaurant
4546 El Camino Real Suite A12
Los Altos, CA 94022
Lunch for two: $21.81