As a reviewer, a lot of people ask me if I've tried a place that they like, and often it's a pretty standard place that I've known about for a while.
But when my Indonesian neighbor who's a dedicated, hard-core foodie makes a recommendation, I always follow up. He turned me on to House of Sun a few years ago and to Abuelitos de Dios, and they were not only incredibly authentic but also had really excellent food. They are not geared towards the unadventurous, though. We had eaten pigs’ ears and beef cheeks at those places — and when he told me about Pho Saigon, I figured we'd have a new experience there, too.
Pho Saigon can be found in the uninspiring shopping strip across Mall Road from Florence Mall. It’s easy to miss — you’re more likely to spot the JoAnn Fabrics next door. The interior has tall apricot vinyl booths along its midsection, and that’s where we found ourselves on a recent hot summer night, with our guest of honor: another neighbor, this one celebrating his 30th birthday.
I felt slightly guilty about taking this birthday guest to a restaurant that doesn’t serve liquor, but when he saw the fruit smoothie options, he was positively gleeful.
“Durian! They make a Durian Smoothie here!”
Actually they make a lot of fruit smoothies ($3.25): avocado, banana, kiwi, strawberry. Durian? I thought durian was supposed to be gawd-awful? It has that reputation. But it happens that my friend had always been curious about the thorny Southeast-Asian fruit, and here was his chance to give it a try. (I love people like this!)
My homemade Strawberry Lemonade ($2.99) and hubby’s Iced Vietnamese Coffee ($3.25) arrived quickly, and we sipped away happily while we looked over the appetizer selections. Both the lemonade and the coffee were sweet, as expected, and I was delighting in the sliced strawberries in my glass, when the smelly smoothie made its entrance.
A fruit that smells like oniony sweatsocks! Don’t you wonder who was the first person to say, “Let’s see what it tastes like?” Seriously, I’ve never been that curious, or that desperate. But I am dedicated, so because I love my readers (hi, Mom!), I raised the straw to my lips and gave it a chance. Good news: The texture was pleasant. Imagine the very best icy-cold onion and sweatsock flavored milkshake you’ve ever tasted. I managed one sip and my guest took at least three before we gave up. Clearly, durian is an acquired taste.
The appetizers were much more to our liking. Pho Saigon is very accommodating to special requests and happily brought us cold Goi Cuon spring rolls ($3.50) with shrimp only, no pork, at no extra charge. They were pleasantly minty — a good smoothie antidote.
I also liked the Banh Xeo crepe ($7.75). Even though it was a little oilier than versions I’ve had in the past, it was crammed with chicken, shrimp and sprouts, and served with a generous helping of fresh basil and mint alongside the romaine lettuce leaves that you use to wrap the crepe bits in as you dunk and devour them. Wrap, dunk, devour, repeat — that’s my personal banh xeo methodology. You may borrow it, but I get credit.
We followed our server’s recommendations for main courses ... for the most part. She steered us away from pho (“It’s too hot to eat soup!”), so I tried the Bun Thit Nuong Heo ($7.25). This is a sizable bowl of rice noodles and fresh greens — lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, basil and mint — topped with slices of spicy roast pork and chopped roasted peanuts. It’s served with a small bowl of rice wine vinaigrette, seasoned with fish sauce, citrus and chilis, that you pour over the top and stir to mix. It makes for a very exotic pasta salad, eventually, with everything just slightly warmer than room temperature, very fresh, with ingredients that are top notch.
Com is steamed rice in Vietnamese. Hubby played it safe with Com Ga Nuong ($7.50), a roast chicken leg and thigh, served along steamed rice and seasoned with a salty sauce that was very much like teriyaki. The chicken might have spent its brief life doing squat thrusts in its cage. Although the meat was flavorful, I thought it was much too tough and greasy.
Our guest’s dinner was fascinating. Com Bi Suong Cha ($8.75) was also a steamed rice dish, accompanied by a very thin but tasty pork loin chop, a slab of egg cake that was dense, chewy and not particularly flavorful and a mysterious shredded garnish. I guessed it might be a grated omelette, but it turns out to have been gossamer strands of bologna and pork skin. Unexpected, but sadly, not yummy.
Since it was a birthday, we had to have dessert. The choices were pretty limited, but we opted for Che ba mau ($3.25), a parfait of sweet red beans, coconut, grated Jello and whipped topping. The mix of textures is like nothing I can think of in our culture’s cuisine. It scored an 11 on a sweetness scale of one to 10.
I liked Pho Saigon, especially the delicious coffee, the appetizers, the fresh, fresh herbs and the pleasant service. If you’re anywhere in the Florence area, it’s a good place to try. My recommendations, though, have to stay with Song Long for a classic dinner, and Pho Lang Thang or Cilantro for casual.
Smelly smoothies aside, Pho Saigon’s food needs a little more polishing before it actually earns its claim of “Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Town.”
Go: 7705 Mall Road, Florence
Hours : 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays. Closed Tuesdays
Red Meat Alternatives : Many
Accessibility : Fully accessible