PAM GRANT DINING OUT
Address: 622 Fisgard St.
Tel: 250-590-SOUP (7687) Hours: Open daily 11 am. to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards and Interac accepted. No wheelchair accessible.
Don and I arrived at our intended target for Thai food recently, to find it closed. Switching gears, we headed to Chinatown, not for the unholy trinity of sweet and sour pork, chicken chow mein and chop suey or anything Chinese, but for something that seems to be slowly taking hold in Victoria as the go-to cuisine when only Asian food will fit the bill.
Vietnamese food, though undoubtedly influenced by Chinese cuisine, is distinctly lighter. Pho Vuong is located in the spot once occupied by the Gladiola Bakery and Restaurant and has a smart interior complete with lucky bamboo, fresh orchids and a couple of flat-screen televisions, which were showing a Canucks game when we arrived. Playoff tension aside, it took only a millisecond for us to receive a friendly welcome.
As the name indicates, they specialize in the national dish pho, and this they certainly do well. But since neither of us was in the mood for soup, we took the opportunity to explore the other sections of the menu, choosing several dishes to share.
Rice-paper-wrapped salad rolls can be bland, but here they are excellent, filled with rice noodles, slivers of iceberg lettuce and cucumber, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, slices of pork sausage and prawns. Slathered with peanut sauce, they were a good contrast of flavours and textures - salty, a little sweet, soft with enough crunch to make keep you interested. Cha gio, crisp fried rolls made here with wheat wrappers instead of rice paper, are stuffed with a simply seasoned mix of carrots, mushrooms, meat and noodles and paired with piquant dipping sauce. They were good, but we both liked the salad rolls better. When our third appetizer arrived, we realized that we might have over-ordered a wee bit. A dinner platesized mound of shredded green papaya topped with fresh vegetables, crisp fried onions, chopped basil and coriander, ground peanuts and prawns would make an excellent meal on its own.
Besides soup and appetizers, the menu offers a small selection of vegetarian dishes, chef's specials, some intriguing beverages (blended jackfruit, iced coffee or fresh lemon soda) as well as combination plates.
I can never say no to an icy Tsing Tao, so we passed on the healthful options and ordered a couple of beers to wash down caramelized chicken, not served in the way I have usually have it, with the meat slightly glazed. Instead, morsels of white and dark meat arrived in a pool of rich dark sauce, with a separate bowl of steaming white rice. We also enjoyed a combination plate loaded with rice noodles, julienned vegetables, a skewer of grilled prawns and lemongrass pork. It was a ridiculous amount of food, but it was Sunday, everything was delicious and so we just took our time. The price? Just over $50 for both of us with tax - and what we had would have easily fed another adult.
But back to that which gave the place its name. Pho is eaten at all times of the day in Vietnam and has many varieties, but if you expect a bowl of steaming broth with noodles, paperthin slices of meat and a plate of beansprouts, fresh herbs, lime wedges and sliced chillies to add as you wish, you won't be disappointed.
Portions are large, though, so if you are eating pho, wait until it arrives before you decide if you want anything else.
I was intending to have pho on my last visit, but changed my mind and ordered bun bo hue, a spicy soup with roots in the former imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. It was loaded with slices of flank, brisket, steak, tendon, pork and meatballs, but for me, it was missing the aromatic notes of star anise and cloves I associate with this dish. It could be that it is being adjusted for Western palates, but I would encourage them not to do this if that's the case.
With nearly 20 kinds of pho here, there's plenty to choose from, including chicken or vegetarian options, the latter being a favourite option when I am feeling cold or I have a sick friend. It's easily digestible, nutritious and so obviously good for you that it's also a guilt-free option that makes it easy to decide not to cook at home.
If you can't finish it, not a problem; leftovers are cheerfully packaged in sturdy containers.
Check out Pho Vuong the next time you find yourself hungry downtown. It's family oriented, a good spot for casual get-togethers, budget friendly and delicious.
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4 Above average