Everyone knows that I love a little bit of foodie inside-baseball. So when my friend Vanessa heard from her Vietnamese manicurist that the best Vietnamese food in town is being served at Pho Vietnam 4 on Government Hill (and NOT, she said pointedly, at the pho restaurant next to the salon), my interest was piqued.
"Ask for them to make the rice crispy," she added. "They won't do it unless you ask." That sealed the deal. For me, it's the culinary version of "Knock three times and say, 'The fat man walks alone.'"
I met a friend for lunch. The restaurant is clean and bright and has all the earmarks of a family-run joint -- big, healthy-looking fish swim in tanks, Barbie dolls in costumes from around the globe are displayed behind glass and a basket of zip-close bags full of something mysterious but intriguing sits next to the cash register. Chili peppers, I wondered? Preserves? Spice paste? But more on that later.
We were greeted warmly and seated right away. One woman seemed to be running the whole dining room, but she was doing so with efficiency and a smile. We ordered two bowls of pho -- one chicken ($10.50) and one beef with meatballs ($10.50). And, of course, we ordered fried rice ($10.50) and were sure to ask, "Can we have that crispy, please?"
Full disclosure: My family has always had a very soft spot for the pho at Ray's on Spenard. It's our go-to dinner after a day of sledding or on busy, no-time-to-cook school nights. They make a light, bright broth and have a generous hand with the noodles. Recently, however, my daughter took a class in Vietnamese cuisine (where was this class when I was in middle school?) and her teacher told her that the pho at Ray's -- while tasty -- is inauthentic. In other words, I don't claim to have an educated palate when it comes to these flavors. In the words of bewildered grandfathers everywhere, "I just know what I like."
The beef pho broth had a distinct and pleasing undercurrent of sweet onion (or, at least, onions that had been cooked to a sweetness). Star anise or a similarly aromatic spice left a graceful lingering taste on my tongue. The meatballs were hearty and sausage-y and lent some heft to the dish.
The chicken pho was different from Ray's but by no means disappointing. The broth had an earthier, deeper flavor and was a touch sweeter than what I'm used to. A squeeze of lemon and a restrained dose of sriracha made a good thing even better. Noteworthy were the thick, generous slices of perfectly trimmed chicken breast -- no bits and pieces of mystery parts here.
The crispy fried rice -- which we shared -- was a delicious mystery. I make fried rice at home and strive for a bit of a brown, crunchy crust. But I can't do in my wok what their chef does. The texture of the rice is difficult to describe. A small proportion of the mostly tender, well-cooked grains almost crackled in my mouth -- as if they'd been "crisped" like a breakfast cereal. I don't know how they do it but I wish I did.
Later, the chef came out to the dining room and asked how I knew to ask for crispy rice. I tried to look sophisticated and knowing. (Thank you, Vanessa's manicurist!)
I returned the following week with my daughter for a meal and to grab some takeout. We had the same friendly service from the same hostess/server. We shared the Vietnamese-style egg rolls ($7) -- stuffed with julienned vegetables and, I believe, a bit of egg, these came to the table crispy, savory and piping hot. We polished them off so quickly that the last two we ate were still hot enough to burn our fingers. This dish came with a garlic fish sauce, but I give high marks to the plentifully stocked condiments that were arranged on every table with stacks of small bowls. Egg rolls are the perfect vehicle for inventing new sauces.
For an entrée, we shared an order of lemongrass beef ($11). A generous portion of well-trimmed, tender bites of beef were cooked in a sauce that was sweet and salty and had a gentle spiciness. The lemongrass lent a fresh, zesty, almost minty note. This is a dish I'll return to. The leftovers, I'll add, were great cold later that night.
To bring home, I ordered the house sandwich ($6) and the pad thai ($10.50) -- not an adventurous choice, but I wanted to sample something from the Thai side of the menu. The pad thai was a little disappointing. The noodles and sauce were fine, but I was missing something. Specifically, the dish specifically lacked peanuts (and texture), but more generally, the dish lacked pizzazz. I wanted more heat and a bit more acid.
The sandwich, on the other hand, was packed with flavor. Served on a French baguette, this sandwich boasts thit nguoi (cold cured pork with a thick border of fat) and a thin layer of what I'm almost positive is headcheese or, in Vietnamese, gio thu.
I'll admit it. It took some courage to bite into this -- these are flavors I'm not accustomed to. But after two very nice meals at Pho 4, I decided to trust the chef. I'm glad that I did. The pork was unctuous and almost creamy. The fragrant cilantro, julienned vegetables, jalapeno peppers and the snap and bite of a sweet but vinegary dressing added freshness. If this sandwich doesn't turn you on, they offer a number of alternatives: chicken, lemongrass beef, shredded pork and tofu.
As for those mystery bags at the front counter? House-made beef jerky. The hostess opened a bag up for me and gave me a small sample. Talk about a palate-cleanser. This jerky was not for the faint of heart. Peppery, spicy, salty, this was a hot and flavorful bite. I thanked her for the taste and we hit the road. But it's a sneaky snack. By the time I had crossed the bridge back into downtown, I was kicking myself for not buying a bag.
Pho Vietnam 4 is well worth a visit for intrepid diners and lovers of pho and Vietnamese flavors. Just remember the code-phrase. The eagle flies at midnight? The fox is in the henhouse? Drink your Ovaltine? Nope. It's "Crispy rice, please."
Pho Vietnam 4
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Location: 809 E. Loop Road