On a weekday afternoon at St. Louis Pho, even the Vietnamese pop ballads blasting from the television speakers can't entirely obscure the business of eating pho: the clinking of chopsticks against the rim of the bowl as diners stir bean sprouts, fresh basil leaves and shreds of sawtooth herb into the broth; the squelching of bottles of Sriracha chile sauce and hoisin; and, of course, the slurping and slurping of rice noodles. If you're sitting down to lunch, the noises can lull you into a trance — you must order pho.
The broth is so good you might hesitate before doctoring it with herbs, raw jalapeños and lime, rich without being heavy, its meaty backbone rounded out with warm, sweet notes of cinnamon, ginger and star anise. You can order this in one of four varieties: pho tai, with gossamer slices of rare steak that continue to cook in the broth; pho bo vien, with Vietnamese meatballs; pho tai bo vien, with steak and meatballs; and pho dac biet, with steak, meatballs, beef shank, tendon and tripe. Whichever you order, generous doses of onion and scallion give the soup a bright punch.
St. Louis Pho opened quietly at the very end of 2011 in a former Burger King on South Grand Boulevard south of Chippewa Street in Dutchtown. The exterior is unassuming, maybe a touch dowdy. The interior is spacious, but sparsely decorated. What had been the ordering counter is now a makeshift bar, flanked on either side by large speakers for karaoke night. You can stand inside the front door, waiting to be seated, or you can just sit wherever you like. That's what the kindly host-slash-server will likely tell you to do.
The menu features more than the restaurant's namesake dish: 75 Vietnamese items in total and another three dozen Chinese. (For this review, I stuck to the Vietnamese food.) Those 75 items don't stray too far from what you'll find at most other Vietnamese restaurants in town, but over multiple visits to St. Louis Pho, I was struck by the depth and vibrancy of the flavors, from the complex pho broth to something as simple as the crisp, fresh herbs nestled with the shrimp and pork inside an order of goi cuon (spring rolls).
St. Louis Pho's banh mi dac biet rivals the city's best examples of this classic Vietnamese sandwich. What sets it apart first and foremost is the bread, a deceptively plump torpedo of a baguette. Beneath the crusty exterior, though, is a remarkably airy loaf, with just enough heft to support all of the meat and vegetables stuffed inside. The fillings strike an ideal balance of flavor and texture: the meaty sweetness of pork and the pungency of pâté; the piquancy of pickled daikon radish and carrot; the snap, literal and figurative, of raw jalapeño and scallion; cooling cucumber and cilantro. It's a great sandwich — and easily overlooked, listed as it is with the appetizers.
A diner could visit St. Louis Pho a dozen times and never get past the soups: Besides pho, there are egg-noodle (mi) soups and vermicelli (bun) soups; there are pork broths and beef broths and fish-sauce broths. I was tempted, but I had to push through to the selection of "House Special" entrées.
Actually, what inspired my visits to St. Louis Pho was a trusted bartender's recommendation of one of these house specials, bo xao xa ot. This brings slices of tender steak with lemongrass and red chiles to be spooned over a mound of steamed white rice. The kitchen doesn't hold back on either the citrus-like brightness of the lemongrass or the heat of the chiles — I wasn't expecting to break a sweat, but I did, and enjoyed it — but neither overwhelms the flavor of the beef.
Likewise, the cari ga (curry chicken) is aggressively spiced, but not so much that you can't taste the chicken. The curry itself is excellent: the seasoning struck me as reminiscent of a Madras-style Indian curry, but the sauce has a Thai-style coconut-milk base that adds a touch of sweetness and cuts the heat, if slightly. Both the curry and the lemongrass dishes are available with seafood (scallop or shrimp) in place of meat or poultry.
The specials also include several market-price seafood dishes as well as seafood or beef hot pots priced for two. I tried the cua xao me, a whole Dungeness crab with tamarind in the "chef's signature sauce." This is quite the splurge at $35; it's also an unavoidable — and joyous — mess to eat. The claws arrive already tossed in the tart, spicy tamarind sauce, and that sauce works itself under your nails and into the whorls of your fingerprints as you crack the claws to get at the sweet crab meat. Several of the claws come with segments of meat from the body attached, and this meat, lightly pan-fried, is even more flavorful than the claw meat.
I was self-conscious eating this. I had tamarind sauce all over my hands and face, and the crack of the pincers breaking open each claw seemed jarringly loud. I needn't have worried. No one else in the restaurant noticed, each happily absorbed in the sounds of his or her own meal.