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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Dining adventures at Saigon Pho


    Sometimes, the ones closest to you are the easiest to overlook. Walk around Main Gate Square and you’ll find restaurants and bars that offer familiar college fare: burgers, pizza, sandwiches and beer. If you’re looking for something that is literally off the beaten path, however, head to Saigon Pho.

    Located near the back entrance of Paradise Bakery, which is a seemingly nebulous area of Main Gate Square, Saigon Pho offers a good selection of Vietnamese dishes. One of the best items to order here is the pho. To quote the Vietnamese poet Pho Vu Quan Phuong, “”Pho is the soul of Vietnam and when I enjoy a bowl of pho, I recall firstly, the flavors of my childhood.””

    This dish, which comes from the streets of northern Vietnam, is made of broth, noodles and meat, but many variations exist within this simple template.

    Like other Vietnamese restaurants, Saigon Pho offers vegetable garnishes that include bean sprouts, sweet basil leaves, cilantro and, in a nod to the Southwest, sliced jalapeno peppers. On each table there is an array of sauces, which include Hoisin, soy and fish, to heighten the flavor of the broth.

    And it is the broth that distinguishes Saigon Pho’s version of this comfort food. Using chicken rather than the customary beef stock gives the broth its wonderful lightness and refreshing clarity. The collaboration of cumin, coriander, black pepper and star anise presents a naked, upfront spiciness to the broth that hits the tongue even before the addition of the garnishes.

    Of the various options, the Pho Dac Biet ($7.99) offers the best bargain and variety. The slices of beef, tripe and meatballs are enough to satisfy most appetites. Unfortunately, the beef doesn’t arrive as rare as it ought to —  that is, almost raw — which is probably due to health regulations. This is a shame since the beef loses its tenderness and some of its flavor from being overcooked in the broth.

    For an even better bargain than the pho, there are the baguettes. At $3.50 each, you get a sandwich with a crunchy exterior and a soft, chewy interior that’s home to strips of carrot and white radish, slices of cucumber and jalapeno, and sprigs of cilantro as well as your choice of meats (the barbecued pork is highly recommended). Saigon Pho’s baguettes offer a welcome change to the sandwiches from nearby competitors.

    Vegetarians need not worry during a visit to Saigon Pho: the veggie options are just as tasty. The Cajun tofu baguette is a great choice for meat and non-meat eaters alike. The tofu has a soft yet chewy texture and carries a mild spiciness to it that proves to be surprisingly comforting; there’s enough heat without punishing your mouth. (Meat eaters: sprinkle some fish sauce for another level of flavor.)

    Saigon Pho has numerous drinks on its menu, but pass on the soda and consider something different, like young coconut ($3) or sugar cane juice ($3.50). The best drinks, however, are the iced coffee with (or without) condensed milk (both $3), the bubble teas ($2.50 with boba) and the blended fruit shakes with tapioca ($3.50).

    The iced coffee with condensed milk at Saigon Pho is nothing like what Starbucks passes off as iced coffee with room for cream and sugar. Its strength and depth is comparable to a shot of espresso with floral notes, and is complemented by the sweetness of the condensed milk — perfect for a midday recharge.

    More exotic drink options are the bubble teas and the blended fruit shakes. There are familiar flavors such as peach, strawberry and green apple. But the taro, lychee and kiwi are definitely worth a try. For the braver diners, there’s durian. Opt for the addition of black tapioca: it adds a silky, smooth and chewy texture to the drinks.

    The food is not the only highlight at Saigon Pho. Once you step inside, the beautiful and cheery décor seeps into you as slowly and warmly as a bowl of pho on a cold winter’s day.

    The lacquered rosewood chairs and tables give you a feeling of being in a formal restaurant, while the two large, flatscreen TVs broadcasting public television or a soap opera directly from Saigon, Vietnam, project an air of casualness.

    Service is quick overall except when ordering an entrée that requires more preparation time, such as a curry.

    Saigon Pho presents diners with a taste of adventure but also a taste of a new home away from home — all within steps of the UA campus.

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