126 West Rector
(across from North Star Mall)
There was a brief time in the 1970s and 1980s when Vietnamese food was all the rage. Relatively large numbers of immigrants from south-east Asia came here in the wake of the American misadventure in Vietnam, bringing with them ideas about what food should taste like, ideas that were novel and exotic to all but the handful of the American troops and military-support staff who had ventured outside the safer environments in that war-torn country. I remember my first trip to a Vietnamese restaurant, run by a former U.S. Army sergeant in west Houston, about 1977. The food was similar to Chinese food, which I was familiar with, in the way a hotel in Beverley Hills is similar to a hotel in Philadelphia. Vietnamese food was as filled with subtlety and texture as Chinese food, but in different ways. The main ingredients were the same, but the treatment was different.
In the years since then, still more east-Asian cuisines have become available in American cities, and while each is very much like Chinese food, each is noticeably different. The variation is proportional to the distances involved, for, as you move from one place to another, and from one cultural area to another, plant vary, fuels vary, food processing varies, and ideas vary. It's the same way here, with Mexican food: a traditional dish in Zacatecas, high in the desert mountains, varies slightly from the same dish prepared in the style of San Luis Potosí, and much more from the same dish prepared in the style of Veracruz. (I had this demonstrated with unforgettable clarity when I attended a friend's office party in a city park in Zacatecas nearly 20 years ago, and sampled three home-made moles, which shared only the defining common ingredients, chocolate and chili peppers.) Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants are reasonably common now in America, and Chinese has become less monolithic, with Mandarin and Szechuan styles, among others, competing with the more familiar Cantonese style. A few other national cuisines indigenous to less populous immigrant groups are out there awaiting discovery as well: I had Malaysian food in New Jersey and was invited to sample Hmong cooking in Wisconsin, of all places.
The atomization of Asian cooking works in reverse, too: many restaurants from smaller nations (and all nations are smaller) also offer Chinese dishes, probably reflecting the long influence of Chinese nationals in the host country. Lots of Chinese people, after all, left China over the centuries and didn't come here to build railroads and open laundries. So it's no surprise to see, on the menu at Pho Thien An, a listing of available Chinese and Thai dishes.
But on our visit last night, we stuck to the Vietnamese food. It was what we went there for.
We started with autumn rolls. Now, I've never heard of autumn rolls before; I don't get out much, I guess. And I can't really tell you the difference between autumn rolls and summer rolls. The autumn rolls at Pho Thien An are larger than an eggroll, and contain carrots, rice, meat and cabbage wrapped tight in a very thin won ton. An order of two makes a good first course for two people, and the variety of sauces available on the table make experimentation easy and fun. They hold together well, too, an important consideration with finger-food.
The main dish we chose, Number 77 from the "family style" section of the menu (I can't begin to recall the Vietnamese name, except that it was four words with lots of accents), was a dish of wide noodles with pork and vegetables stir-fried in oil... rather too much oil, which glistened on every surface. A little oil is, of course, necessary for stir-frying, and it adds an undeniable flavour; but it also adds a lot of fat calories that most San Antonians can do without. That aside, the dish was very well prepared. It had plenty of meat in it, and onion, asparagus and bok choy, and enough seasonings to give it just a little kick.
The ambience of the place is unremarkable. Occupying two sections of a standard strip-mall space, with glass walls looking out on the parking lot and Rector Street, its décor is uninspired. A television, with the sound off; a folding screen; a few wall hangings of the nondescript variety. Nothing worth noting. The dining area was clean and well-maintained, though the restroom could use some attention.
|last city inspection: July 2012|
The service would, I thought, be a challenge to me as an English-speaker, but after a couple of uncertain attempts at communicating with one waiter, another man took over, and he and I were able to at least understand each other. Everything needed was brought in good time, and we were attended to as we would have expected, and even a little better than that. But it was in the value of ordering off the "family style" section of the menu that makes this place a bargain. Individual dishes from the other parts of the menu run eight to ten dollars, prices that are about the market-norm in this part of the world; on the "family style" menu, thirteen dollars buys enough good food to satisfy two appetites, especially when paired with an appetizer split between two people.