For most of its 11-year existence, just about the only thing remotely negative that anyone has been able to say about Pho Grand was that its atmosphere was plain, sitting as the restaurant did in a spartan storefront on South Grand. But hey, at prices as low as 5 bucks a plate for a full meal, who was going to be a stickler about surroundings that had, as one local dining savant put it, "all the allure of your junior high's cafeteria"?
Now even that potential objection has been erased by Pho Grand's move several doors south into a rehabbed two-story building that looks as if it was once residential. The first-floor dining area is charming, bordering on stunning, greeting patrons with an oak bar, offset from the street by a wrought-iron-fenced patio that will house outdoor dining in the warmer months, whimsically decorated in Southeast Asian fashion with a touch of Poland (a screen featuring a vintage Polish-language ad for a concert of the music of homeski-boy Frédéric Chopin). The box-framed musical instruments are eye-catching, but pay special attention to the shadowy images of Vietnamese statues that eerily blend into the stucco-colored walls.
Despite the upgrades, prices have remained at the same level that has made Pho Grand a perennial winner in the Best Value category in the RFT Restaurant Poll, and quality is up to the standards that have scored it Best Vietnamese. It's still possible to eat heartily for under 5 bucks, and even with an appetizer, entree and some of that seductive Vietnamese iced coffee to drink, you're right around a 10-spot before the tip.
The allure, though, is much more than sheer cheapness. Good Vietnamese food in general, and Pho Grand's specifically, is about freshness, and texture, an enveloping aroma of rice vinegar and peanuts and basil and cilantro, with just a tingle of red chile occasionally sneaking in from those condiment containers on every table.
The whole Vietnam-as-atmosphere thing insinuated itself into my consciousness when an order of one of the dishes that helps give the restaurant its name, pho ga -- pho for rice-noodle soup, ga for chicken -- arrived at our table. Along with the soup came a bowl full of giant sprouts, basil, cilantro and mixed garden greens, which the waiter proceeded, after asking, to mix into the very hot broth. As he did this, I realized that the hot liquid was becoming something of an herbal tea, with steam and scents rising into the air to help create the subtle perfume that defines the restaurant. You just couldn't help but dive right in.
The menu is broad, with close to 100 choices, quaintly segmented through the use of an unusual numbering system that screams for some computer geek to come in and order "version 18.01, service pack 3, Java-enabled." (We did find that both of our servers politely confirmed our Westernized attempts at the actual Vietnamese names of our orders -- goi cuon, bo luc lac, mi xao gion -- with their numeric equivalents, just to be sure.)
The appetizer called goi cuon, fresh spring rolls, is one of the best gauges of basic Vietnamese cooking, featuring fine rice noodles, bisected shrimp, slices of pork, lettuce, cilantro and fresh garden vegetables wrapped in something called rice paper, which is made from a rice-paper shrub rather than actual rice. It's a semitranslucent white leaf with a texture slightly gummier than that of boiled cabbage but, when done correctly, with about the same resistance as properly prepared pasta. Because it has almost no flavor of its own, the rice paper absorbs that of both the filling and the sweet-tart-tangy-hot taste of the accompanying dipping sauce. At Pho Grand, you could sit there and eat them all evening long.
Other appetizers we sampled included cha gio, a deep-fried egg roll that, again, benefited from the use of fresh ingredients; and go ngo sen, a large salad of finely sliced cucumber, shredded carrot, basil and the omnipresent cilantro with a background taste vaguely like coconut resulting from the addition of lotus root.
The most expensive (a truly relative term here) entrees were two versions of mi xao gion, a massive portion of crispy pan-fried narrow-gauge round noodles served under a sautéed assortment of squid, fake crab, sliced pork, onion, cilantro, carrot and French-cut baby broccoli. The noodles at the very bottom eventually absorb some of the sauce from above and add a smoky tinge to the various flavors. The bo luc lac, also known as shaking beef, was a much simpler dish, with chunks of a cut that felt like top sirloin grilled in garlic and onions and then served with scallions, fresh tomato and cucumber slices, lettuce and pickled shredded carrot atop a bed of slightly sweet short-grained rice.
Pho Grand also features three different entree versions of rice-flour crê pes, which usually show up in just one form on local menus, as an appetizer. The banh cuon cha lua was topped with a mystery meat described as "luncheon meat" on the menu, and although it looked a bit like a processed chicken loaf, it added a distinctive light-colored counterpoint to the appearance of the dish. Once again, tanginess ruled the day, with a gentle vinegar flavoring permeating the airy pancakes and enhancing the large portion of sprouts, cukes and other vegetables inside.
Vietnamese iced coffee, for the uninitiated, is 3 or 4 ounces of very strong French roast, drip-brewed from a custom miniature basket into a juice glass containing just about an equal amount of sweetened condensed milk, then blended and combined with ice cubes. The result is like a rich coffee milkshake, and it's just as ideal for sipping on a tropical St. Louis afternoon as it is in its birthplace in Southeast Asia.
Vietnamese music, traditional and pop, played in the background, but just as melodic to my Western ears were the often intense conversations among the staff in their native tongue.
On your way out, you're saluted by pictures of St. Louis glitterati major and minor, including several TV folks, hometown Excellent Adventurer Alex Winter and, most important, the local dean of restaurants, Vince Bommarito -- an irony in a 10-buck-meal place, but a fitting one. It just proves that who goes there must be a friend at Pho.
PHO GRAND, 3195 South Grand (South City), 314-664-7435. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun., Mon., Wed. & Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. & Sat. Entrees: $3.95-$10.