We went on a Friday night right after I got off work. Because the dinner rush hadn’t started yet, we were seated almost immediately by our young server. She was friendly and attentive, offering to help us with any questions we might have on the rather overwhelmingly huge menu. Knowing that many patrons wouldn’t be familiar with some of the items offered at this Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant, she explained that part of her training included trying as many dishes as possible so she could guide her customers with ease. Aside from its cleanliness, that immediately registered in my mind as the first good thing about Pho Bac Sac (as it’s lovingly referred to on Twitter). To me, there’s nothing more off-putting than asking your server for recommendations or clarifications on the menu and having him either stare at you blankly or just shrug and say, “I don’t know. Haven’t tried it.”
Because we were busy catching up on our gossip, it took us a while to look through the large menu. As I said before, it’s quite extensive and a bit overwhelming for a first-timer. But as Kristy explained, they don’t just serve the traditional Vietnamese pho; they also serve more standard Chinese fare for the less adventurous eaters. But even if the menu is large in size, their prices aren’t, with most items ranging from $6-8. For their more mainstream Chinese fare, they offer rice plates that cost around $7.50 each, or a la carte versions for a slightly higher amount.
But I wasn’t there for the kind of Chinese food I can get just about anywhere; I was there for one thing and one thing only: a big steaming bowl of pho.
Pronounced “fuh”, pho is a fabulous melange of flavors, textures and cultural influences swimming in a giant bowl of steaming hot broth. Inspired by different aspects of Chinese and French cooking, the ingredients are simple: noodles, meat, and broth served with a healthy side of sprouts, basil, mint, and other leafy greens.
Traditionally, it is served with beef but as it’s gained popularity here in the U.S., it’s sometimes served with chicken or other meats. The best way to eat it, however, is the real way: with plenty of steak, brisket, tendon, and tripe. For those who are a little squeamish about the last two ingredients, don’t fret: Pho Bac offers over ten different versions of this beef noodle soup, giving one the opportunity to customize it according to one’s personal tastes.
Because I’m a staunch believer that the only tripe I can eat is the kind found in my mother’s mondongo (the Colombian – and far better – version of menudo), I decided to order the #5, which comes with rare steak, well-done flank, and tendon. Since our goal was to do a small menu tasting, we also ordered the lettuce wraps with pork, wor wonton soup, and the charbroiled shrimp & pork over vermicelli, a.k.a. #51.
If the Pho Bac Sac menu is huge, their portions are even bigger. I could have enjoyed our lettuce wrap appetizer for dinner and still end up with leftovers, such as the amount of food served to us. Beautifully presented, it came with a generous serving of rice noodles, perfectly-seasoned charbroiled pork, and a healthy wedge of iceberg lettuce, from which you would peel your individual wrap’s leaves. A side of fresh cilantro, mint, and bean sprouts accompanied this lovely appetizer which is definitely something to be shared between a couple of people.
Our soups came out next, served to steam hot in large bowls. Kristy’s wor wonton soup was a beautifully colorful affair, with plenty of greens & pink cured pork accenting the hefty wonton dumplings that swam in a perfect looking broth. I was instantly jealous until my big bowl was placed in front of me, after which I couldn’t have cared less, for I was in blissful pho country.
The first thing I do when I try a new noodle soup is to try the broth by itself. Yes, noodles are important, but if they’re floating in nothing but saltwater all the luster of a perfect bowl of noodle soup is lost. My small bowl of pho (which is actually quite large) came with a well-balanced broth: not too salty, not bland, with the subtle flavors of the beef bones it was cooked from showing up at the very end of the slurp, right before you swallow. Since my noodles were buried under the meat, I tried the steak and flank next, finding them both tender and lightly seasoned. The noodles were long, chewy, and perfect for slurping (and no, I’m not a heathen; noodle soup is supposed to be slurped!), and the tendon, once I dug it up from under the noodles, was also very tender and added a fabulous flavor to the rest of the soup.
Because I was already pretty full from lettuce wraps and the pho, I knew that my beautiful plate of vermicelli, charbroiled pork, and skewered shrimp was not going to be entirely consumed that night, but I couldn’t leave without at least taking a couple of bites. Served with more sprouts and fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, and mint, and sprinkled with chopped peanuts, this is my favorite Vietnamese dish to enjoy next to pho. The sweet, smoky pork combined with the tender rice noodles and all those crunchy veggies is further accented by what I consider to be the star of that show: the slightly sweet rice vinegar dressing with matchstick carrots. Poured on top of the entire dish, it adds just the right amount of moisture and ties all the flavors together perfectly.
The only thing that would have made this fabulously filling dinner even better would have been a small glass of plum wine, but at that time they only had their regular beverage menu available. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s requested this, because as of April 1st, both the Rancho Cordova and Folsom locations will be offering a small wine selection, so that should be nice to try in the future. I did have every intention of ordering a Vietnamese coffee after dinner since that’s the best way to top off a good Vietnamese dinner. Alas, I was way too full of noodles to do so, and just sipped at my tea while my giant vermicelli plate and the rest of my pho were packed neatly in to-go containers.
All in all, I really enjoyed my first Pho Bac Sac experience. The service was quick, the food served hot and filled with traditional flavors, as opposed to the more Americanized versions of these dishes that one might find at other restaurants. It’s a little far for me to get to right now, but if you live a little east of Sacramento and are traveling down the Highway 50 corridor, be sure to take a little detour and give Pho Bac Hoa Viet a try. You’ll be a fan, pho sure! (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)
Pho Bac Hoa Viet has two locations: 606 E. Bidwell Street in Folsom, and 3110 Bradshaw Road in Rancho Cordova. You can follow them on Twitter @phobacsac and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PhoBacHoaViet