There is no such thing, my father enjoys reminding me daily, as a free lunch. I'm no economist, but the doctrine would also seem to suggest, as a sort of corollary, that you should try like hell to get a dirt-cheap lunch whenever you can. In addition to the obvious fiscal benefits, few lunch-related endeavors can make a young capitalist feel more alive than setting off, spurred by a gnawing desire and a lone five-spot crumpled in the pocket, toward gastrointestinal consequences unknown at some uncharted hole-in-the-wall.
Voyagers on the perennial quest for the cheap lunch often turn to Vietnamese restaurants, where everything on the menu seems to cost $3.75 and the likelihood of encountering a fresh vegetable is high. Planning to invest the savings in nanobot futures, the posse and I recently scuttled off to the newly expanded Pho Saigon.
We found it on the southern outskirts of the South Grand strip, in a dejected pile once noted for Pizza-A-Go-Go and a Schweig-Engel appliance outlet. Swelling over the roar of traffic were the not-so-dulcet tones of a rock band rehearsing upstairs, and the neighborhood hub, adult-toy store Friends and Luvers, glinted two doors down. This section of town will never be immortalized in picture postcards, nor is it likely (unless you want a dirty movie) to inspire a postprandial sightseeing stroll, but at these prices who cares? Five of us gorged ourselves silly for about 35 bucks, after which we were content to confine our after-dinner exertions to the few feet between the car and the patio at CBGB's.
Often overlooked by the madding crowd, Pho Saigon -- run by one of the original Pho Grand chefs -- is touted by certain Bolshevik aficionados as more "authentic" than some of the more honky-centric Vietnamese places around town. I know what you're thinking, that the word "authentic" seems to be bandied about pretty equally by haggis-loving comp-lit professors and persons known to eat Provel cheese, and too often it foreshadows ingredients a trifle whimsical for the prosaic Midwestern palate. I agree completely; if I had a nickel for every time I've suffered the unnatural shock of braised lamprey, or fermented emu carpaccio, or Imo's pizza at some "authentic" ethnic dive -- well, let's just say that we Posey-Smiths will jab our forks into many things, but there are limits.
Fortunately, Pho Saigon's authenticity lies largely within the comfort zone, in the sense that forks are rarely seen there, English is used sparingly and interior design extends to a few fluorescent silk flowers. If you've ever eaten Vietnamese food, and bear a fondness for cilantro, and don't mind the occasional pig's foot or "beef stripe," you will find nothing much to alarm you.
Still, you might surmise that, at around $7 a head with tip, Pho Saigon's is not the most sophisticated fare. This is home cookin' for sure, and, though there are plenty of gems, in some cases it's pretty rustic. "Monkey nuts," in fact, were the words uttered by my chum Bobbo as he gazed -- I noted with some apprehension -- at my soup.
An aromatic broth into which I had just chucked a handful of the accompanying fresh foliage, the soup in question was Number 25, pho tai bo vien: thin slices of grizzled beef nested in a tangle of cellophane noodles. On its surface floated a gloss of oil that gave me a jaundiced wink as a Bi-State bus thundered past just inches from the window. An exploratory spoon turned up a clutch of meatballs immediately identifiable as the objects to which Bobbo had so colorfully alluded.
Truth is, the Vietnamese meatball of South Grand has never exactly inspired me to erupt in joyful song. To me, this gray, rubbery lozenge of indeterminate origin has always been the wiener of Vietnamese cooking: bland, suspect, even a little downtrodden. Fortunately, Bobbo is devoid of my provincial prejudices and was only too happy to relieve me of my meatball supply. This freed me up to concentrate on what everybody else was eating, with generally agreeable results.
The hands-down favorite was a stir-fried tofu dish. We'd ordered Number 89, tau hu xao xa ot, purported to be a preparation with lemongrass and onion. We found no evidence of lemongrass, but there was plenty of scallion and cilantro. Domino-sized tofu slices were refreshingly free of the excess grease that can plague dishes like this one, and the spicy, barbecuey, slightly sweet brown sauce was truly delicious.
Vietnamese is a noodle-worshiping cuisine, and no visit should be contemplated without trying out a bun. Our vermicelli dish (Number 52, bun bo xao ca ri) was a big friendly bowl of stir-fried beef with shredded carrot, an abundance of fresh basil, peanuts and a cheeky curry sauce.
Though I generally cannot advocate the bland whitish sauce one often finds infesting such dishes, I was pleasantly surprised by the mi xao don chay (Number 86). Stir-fried tofu, baby corn, crisp cabbage and a few of those glossy phallic mushrooms were surrounded by wreath of crispy egg noodles and topped, as is nearly everything at Pho Saigon, with cilantro. The sauce was delicate rather than aggressively tasteless and responded well to a few squirts of hot chile sauce.
Less successful was a rice plate of stir-fried ginger chicken (Number 66, com ga xao gung). The bite of lots of fresh ginger was all well and good, and the ample garnishes of fresh foliage were beautiful, but the texture of the dark-meat chicken was a little on the funky side.
From the appetizer section, we enjoyed all four kinds of rolls. Rice-paper rolls filled variously with vermicelli, shrimp or pork or tofu, and a blast of bitter Thai basil, were all fresh and glossy. The French sandwich was also quite arresting: an unexpectedly excellent baguette housed cucumbers, pork, a slice of something resembling Spam and a substance falling somewhere between braunschweiger and chicken-liver mousse. If this sounds weird, well, it was.
So here's how I figure it: If you like waiting in line, using forks and getting the bum's rush, go to the touristy Pho Grand. But if it were my seven bucks, I'd spread out, take my time and enjoy hospitable service at Pho Saigon.