The tables are nondescript, and frankly, a bit shabby looking. A few faded posters of girls drinking exotic sodas hang limply on the walls, while Vietnamese folk/trance music hums in the background. The menu behind the counter advertises sundry sandwiches and smoothies, while the sign on the cash register reads, “Sorry, no ATM.” Pho Saigon is not much for ambiance—but the food—oh yeah—the food is worth the drabness of the surroundings.
Vietnamese joints have sprung up all across SoCal over the last 20 years and part of the reason they’ve become a popular niche dining experience is because of patron curiosity into the culture—not to mention the quality of cuisine itself. With its heavy emphasis on Pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup, as well as lean cuts of chicken, beef, and pork served up with intricate noodle dishes and vegetables, Vietnamese grub is an incredibly healthy dining option. This may be one of the reasons Pho Saigon was full on the night I dropped by, with an eclectic mix of families, local students from UCR and a couple of dudes who looked like they just came careening out of a Charles Bukowski poem. Phi Saigon’s lack of alcohol keeps it from being a wilder scene than it possibly could be—a liquor license and a karaoke machine could make Pho Saigon epic, being so near the college.
Don’t do Pho without ordering an appetizer or two. The spring rolls, so unlike their brethren found in Chinese or Thai establishments, should be first on your agenda. With vermicelli, carrots and bamboo shoots, shrimps and pork, the rolls are more akin to eating a salad trapped inside a delicate rice blanket. These aren’t fried, and the Kaffir lime leaves sprinkled throughout the rolls makes them truly refreshing—especially when dipped in the understated sweet and sour sauce. Another tasty appetizer is the Lotus salad with shrimps and pork, and can we just agree to make shrimps the new plural? It’s more fun and less redundant.
If soup’s not your thing, another great choice for the main course is any of the rice dishes served up with fresh thin slices of meat. I went for the steamed broken rice with shredded pork and shrimp, a simplistic meal on a frigid night. The pork is covered with an eggshell—referred in the menu as egg “meat”—making for a fantastically crispy coating that brings out the pepper and lemon spicing in the pork, creating a sublime mishmash of savory tastes come together atop a mound of broken rice. Broken rice, for those of you who don’t know, is simply rice that didn’t make it through the milling process, resulting in something similar to couscous, only with jasmine flavor. In other words, it’s damn fine, especially when combined with the thin slices of carrots, and chives interspersed throughout the dish. If you require a bit of spicy, there’s always the Sriracha “Fong” hot sauce handy—a few squirts of which’ll turn sublime into scorching, and of which left me longing for that not-to-be-found brew.
But the Pho’s got tea, smoothies made from a variety of exotic fruits, salted plum soda, coconut juice, and a host of other such beverages. Just keep in mind that Pho Saigon doesn’t take cards and the nearest ATM is a bit of a walk down University Avenue.
Pho Saigon, 1450 University Avenue, Riverside, (951) 369-0306, Mon.-Sat. 10AM-9PM, Closed Sunday.