By Bill Gerdes
If you were experiencing Vietnamese food for the first time, say 10 years ago—and let’s assume you were something of what would come over the next decade to be called a foodie—there was an air of mystery as you walked into a Vietnamese restaurant. The wafting of smells, décor and even an alphabet that felt, well . . . foreign. Perhaps the owners-who more than likely took your order- spoke little English and seemed a tad um gruff. You ordered patchwork, guesswork, although you knew you had to try this “pho” thing. And then afterwards maybe you were transformed like Jonathan Gold at the LA Weekly, whose writings about his search for the perfect pho in LA made a Vietnamese soup into an object of fetishistic worship. At the very least, you left your virgin Vietnamese restaurant with a sense of wonder and intrigue.
Calibasil is not that place. Calibasil is neither otherworldly, puzzle-worthy, dangerous or plain-old-weird. No, Calibasil is Vietnamese food with all of the mystery and just a little bit of the heart sucked out. And in its place? This is Vietnamese food for the masses, your Uncle Ted, Flo from accounting and before you dismiss me as a pretentious, aging hipster (that I probably am) that’s not a terrible thing. For everysublime hole-in-the-wall pho spot, there are probably two that are either overrated or just plain lousy. Calibasil is definitely not lousy.
I had reservations about eating pho that was seemingly served up on the spot, but the broth had obviously been made that morning and been put in pots in the front to simmer until the next customer walked down the line. A customer at Calibasil simply walks through the line, choosing their ingredients as they go. I went with the Beef Brisket, all the garnishes such as scallions, cilantro, mint and bean sprouts, as well as the beef broth (although they have a veggie pho option too).
What Calibasil offers is this transparency—a window into the kitchen—and a chance to watch your food being made. My pho was tasty and hearty, although it wasn’t quite the best pho I have ever tasted. But it’s quick, good and moderately priced. The restaurant itself is bright and clean and the staff extremely helpful and friendly. In many ways Calibasil is the bizzaro-Vietnamese restaurant.
I’m also a sucker for Bahn Mi, those lovely little sandwiches that fuse perfectly the Vietnamese and French sensibilities when it comes to food. Simply put, I quite liked the Bahn Mi at Calibasil. I sampled the Garlic Chicken Bahn Mi variety and it was a nice mesh of the garlic sauce interacting with the more traditional ingredients like pickled vegetables and cucumber. The handmade spring rolls were also good. Calibasil and its sister restaurant Oven 450, which features a wide array of flatbreads, are a welcome addition to the University Village shopping center in Riverside. Take Flo from accounting—God knows she needs a break.
Calibasil Vietnamese Eatery, 3740 Iowa Ave. Ste. 104 Riverside, (951) 684-4770; www.calibasil.com. AE, MC, V.