I wrote, in a posting yesterday on my other blog, that our local weekly alternative newspaper, the Current, features, among other things, "restaurant reviews of questionable reliability." That, of course, is an opinion developed and continually reinforced over about twenty years.
Still, I would not be a curmudgeon of some sophistication if I did not recognize that not all reviews in the Current are equally unreliable. Lately the rag has been publishing reviews by one Ron Bechtol, and while I haven't had occasion to evaluate his judgment, I've enjoyed his writing. And let's face it, there's something about well-written critical prose that makes one naturally tend to believe the truth of what is said. With that in mind, I set off to flesh out his work for myself, by visiting Pho Ha Long, a Vietnamese soup kitchen way out in Loopland that, according to the headline writer, restored the critic's appetite.
He got the overall description spot on; the place is nothing special to look at. A dozen or so tables for four arranged in lines in a smallish strip-mall space, with plate-glass windows across the front and the cash register in back, by the kitchen. The ambience was not helped by a television playing what appeared to be episodes of a soap opera set in Imperial China, but as loud as it seemed when we arrived in a nearly-empty dining room, it was barely audible once the place filled up.
The place seems to be a family affair; at least, all the staff is Asian and bear a strong resemblance to one another, and only one, it seems, speaks English fluently; which is sufficient, since most of the customers seem to speak Vietnamese too. And of course the small children playing around the counter make it clear that family connections are strong there.
We started with spring rolls. Most Asian restaurants, be they Vietnamese or Thai or Chinese or Malaysian, seem to produce their spring rolls according to exactly the same formula. Not so at Pho Ha Long. These spring rolls were huge, fresh, and crisp; and the peanut-laced dipping sauce was delicious. (Mr Bechtol, in his review, described it as "refreshingly both more and less than diluted chunky Skippy." I'm not sure what that means, or even whether it's intended as praise for the peanut sauce or for chunky Skippy. In any case, I saw no resemblance between Pho Ha Long's sauce and peanut butter, though it's true I prefer Jif to Skippy, so I don't really have a proper frame of reference.)
We ordered a small chicken pho and a bowl of beef stew with rice noodles. Whatever you order, order the small: it's huge, and filling. Unfortunately, the quality of the food left me less than completely satisfied.
One of the characteristics of all Asian cuisines is that they use seasonings and spices that are unfamiliar to the average-American palate. I can generally identify from taste and appearance all of the spices customarily used in most European cuisines, because I've been eating them all my long life (and I'm still only 49); but even though I've been a regular consumer of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese food for nigh onto 30 years, I still can't identify many of the intriguing flavours to be found there.
But I didn't have any trouble identifying the flavours in the two dishes we sampled. The chicken pho was unseasoned chicken breasts boiled in the broth. The dish was about as bland as any chicken soup I've ever tasted, despite generous helpings of fresh basil from the condiment plate. The beef stew was exactly that: beef, or at least beef fat, stewed with carrots and rice noodles in a spicy red sauce consisting -- and here I'm exaggerating -- of equal parts tomato and chile sauce. The beef fat imparts its flavours to the base, but I'm sorry: I ain't gonna eat that much fat, so I picked it out with my chopsticks, collecting about a cup of fat on the hors d'oeuvre plate. There were also some chunks of beef without fat, and they were nicely tender and flavourful. Really, my main complaint was that the dish was served so hot that even after waiting ten minutes, it scalded like McDonald's coffee.
The entire tab, including tip, came to $25. That included one passion fruit bubble tea.
Overall? Pho Ha Long was okay. Not great, and not worth driving halfway across town to try. There aren't any pho houses near me, that I know of, but there are plenty of good Thai and Vietnamese places closer to me. Which tells me that I don't reckon I'll be having pho no mo at Pho Ha Long.