That's all I could think, as I slurped long rice noodles from my giant bowl of beefy Phở and nibbled on jujube-like chunks of beef tendon. This place is just like the Chicago Greek short-order joints of my youth, but Vietnamese. I felt right at home.
Work with me here. I know Vietnamese and Greek cuisines have very little in common except perhaps a love of the outdoor grill, but for some reason I felt for a moment almost like I was bending over a bowl of avgolemono rather than phở.
Maybe it's the utilitarian look of the place. Perhaps it's the speed with which food rushes from the kitchen, or the efficiency on display as you're bustled from your table with a quickness that is downright astonishing, yet somehow not at all rude.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked through the doors of Pho Saigon for the first time in months. I was craving a big bowl of Bún, the noodle bowl that does a reasonably good impression of a salad. There's a pile of peanuts, and crunchy julienned carrots, daikon, and cucumber atop a substantial mound of rice noodles, which as it turns out is resting on a double handful of shredded lettuce. Thank goodness, because otherwise that would be a metric fuckton of noodles.
As you can see, that's not where it ends; you choose what meats you'd like to perch atop your bowl of plenty. For some reason, I'm currently stuck on a combination of grilled pork (theirs is good, but not great; savory, with a bit of the smoky grill clinging to the meat) and chả giò, vietnamese fried spring rolls that are stuffed with minced meat and tiny strips of shredded vegetables. You could also have this with chicken, or shrimp, or beef, or tofu.
It comes with a side of nước chấm, a small cup of powerfully flavored fish sauce which has a bit of sourness, and a bit of sweetness, and just a ton of umami. I like to throw a lot of fresh chili sauce in the fish sauce cup, before dumping it all on top of my bowl of noodles and mixing everything together.
How can you resist that? I know I can't.
A few days later, on Superbowl Sunday, I dragged Logan to Pho Saigon with me. We were in need of something fast and filling, and this place was still very much at the forefront of my mind.
We started out with an order of summer rolls, Gỏi cuốn, stuffed with shrimp and pork. They were fine, but I'm pretty sure they aren't the restaurant's specialty. It's not called Gỏi cuốn Saigon, after all. The wrap was fresh, and the noodles inside were fine, but everything was just a bit bland.
Then a bowl of Phở. Logan has loved his phở with an egg floating in it ever since we were introduced to the possibility at Pho 24 in HCMC. I really wanted to try the meatballs, and Logan wanted the rare beef. The bowl came out and it was lovely, though rather imposing - all this for $6.15.
We added the pile of bean sprouts to the soup, picked the basil leaves off of their stem and threw them in, and then squeezed in the bits of lime. I'd love for these guys to offer a wider range of greenery for doctoring the phở, but they don't. At some pho joints, the leaves on the dish of flavorants can reach higher than the bowl itself.
Their phở is very good. We kicked up the flavor a little bit with a couple dashes of the provided fish sauce, but that's just our preference. The broth was rich, but not overpoweringly beefy, and smelled of star anise and cinnamon. The noodles were perfectly cooked, and thank goodness Pho Saigon doesn't turn out a bowl that's full to the brim with noodles and only has a ladleful of the broth. That would be my phở pet peeve, if I could be said to have one - I'm a broth lady over here!
Along with our always-necessary Vietnamese coffees, we decided to try out a salty lemon drink called Chanh muối, which turned out to be less salty than super sweet. It will be very refreshing when our 100 degree days return any minute now.
I, surprise surprise, ordered another giant bowl of bún on this visit. No worries, I TOTALLY shared lots of it with Logan. We ended up bringing a hearty serving of phở home.
So if you have 20 minutes or so to spare (seriously, the food here comes out with a quickness) and you're in North Austin, give Pho Saigon a try. Don't expect a romantic ambience or fawning service, or anything other than a fast serving of solid Vietnamese food at good prices. I've gotta get back and try a rice plate or two if I can ever tear myself away from my giant bowl of noodles.
Pho Saigon is in the Chinatown Center at 10901 N. Lamar. 512.821.1022.