Monday, January 26, 2009

Pho One

Despite its name, Pho One’s menu ranges far from the quotidian bowl of pho. My wife and I made a solemn pact not to order the pho, but to try something a little more adventurous.

We didn’t take long to decide what we wanted, and we rattled it off to the waiter in a sorry display of uncontrolled drooling: goi bo tai chanh (lemon beef salad), chao ga (rice porridge with chicken), sinh to bo (avocado shake), and bun cha Hanoi (Hanoi-style vermicelli with grilled pork).

Like the parents who turned into greedy, food-hoarding pigs in the movie Spirited Away, we quickly became demonic in our want of good Vietnamese. For two people who don’t have anywhere close to three hundred pounds between them, my wife and I were staring straight in the face of a very large meal.

The thin-sliced beef in our goi bo tai chanh was undercooked, as it should be–the beef is usually cured in lemon juice, which gives it a fresh zing–and while I recognized that this could potentially have a bad result somewhere inside my intestines, the meat beautifully soaked up the sweet and sour flavors of vinegar and lime juice, and provided a nice textural counterpoint to the lettuce, onions, peanuts, cilantro, and slivers of carrot. (I didn’t dare bite into the generously cut red chilies, though my wife did, and had to blot the sweat from her face for the following hour.) The portion was enormous and would have made a good meal by itself.

The avocado shake offered me a nice respite from the spice of the lemon beef salad, but it turned out to be less thick than I prefer. It was pleasantly sweet, but the sweetened condensed milk, and French vanilla ice cream that I thought I detected in that gloriously pale green concoction, overpowered the avocado to the extent that I could hardly taste it. Which is too bad, because proper avocado shakes can be life-changing.

The chao ga was excellent, if rather too salty. It was served topped with chopped scallions, fried onions, and three- to four-inch slivers of ginger, which infused the rice porridge perfectly. Stirring around the chao I found tender hunks of white chicken meat floating about, and I was glad to see that the bowl wasn’t overloaded with meat. Too many Asian restaurants Americanize their menus so that we’re given two or three times the amount of meat the dish calls for. Here, they were neither skimpy nor overzealous. The ginger-infused porridge was excellent enough that it would unquestioningly stand on its own.

What I was most curious about, and honestly a bit dubious of, was the bun cha Hanoi. In the scores of Vietnamese restaurants I’ve eaten in throughout the U.S., never have I found a place that serves authentic bun cha–bun cha is originally a northern dish, and virtually every Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S. features southern recipes. The problem I had with the cha was that the same kind of pork used in thit nuong was used here, and nuong is not the same as cha, which is flame-cooked in a brazier. Not that my dish didn’t taste good, but if you’re expecting real Hanoi-style bun cha then you should prepare for disappointment. Even so, everything was right about the vermicelli, and the garnishing went well with the meat, noodles, and fish sauce.

At this point my wife and I were moaning from the painful bloating that was upon us, but I wasn’t done yet. Channeling the eating moxie of Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi, I flagged down our waiter. After making it clear that I didn’t want the bill but the menu, I scoured the dessert items for che. Since taro is a traditional Hawaiian food — Hawaiians believe they originated from taro, and consider the plant “the staff of life” — I figured I should go that route. I ordered che khoai mon, a chilled “sweet-soup” made of coconut milk, translucent sago pearls, hunks of cooked taro, and flavored with pandanus leaves. Thankfully the che was quite light, and the taro, which resembled a sweet potato in flavor, complemented the sweet coconut milk, though the latter was a bit thick for my liking, possibly because it was served chilled rather than warm. But it was tasty and made me nostalgic for the che vendors I used to buy from in early-90s Vietnam.

Our lemon beef salad, rice porridge with chicken, and Hanoi-style vermicelli with grilled pork ranged in price from $8.75 to $16.45. That’s expensive compared to most Vietnamese restaurants in Honolulu, but the food is excellently prepared and presented, tastes authentic and delicious, and is good value for the portions served. Bowls of pho hover around $8, cold vermicelli selections can be had for between $8.50 and $17, and a la carte items, such as catfish simmered in peppers and spices, and ginger simmered duck or chicken, will dent your wallet even more. Their hot pots, sandwiches, and vermicelli roll-ups on a tray are also worth considering.

I love Vietnamese food. (It’s why this review is so annoyingly long.) If Pho One had a cheaper menu, I’d eat there every day.

Pho One is located at 1617 Kapiolani Boulevard. Call (808) 955-3438 for take out orders and catering. Parking is limited to three or four vehicles in front, but the garage beside the restaurant offers another half dozen free parking spaces.


Monday - Sunday: 9 a.m. - 10 p.m.

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