Just look at this restaurant’s logo, “Pho Chef, Vietnamese Cuisine” (in English, Spanish and Vietnamese), and check its location (Guadalajara’s popular and homespun shopping district, Santa Teresita) and you would guess that this eatery might offer a unique, international experience.
You would be correct. If there is another Vietnamese restaurant in the city, it is a well kept secret. There are, of course, plenty of Chinese restaurants (including a few good ones), a handful of Japanese ones (not counting the ubiquitous “sushi” houses), fewer Korean ones and at least two Asian fusion restaurants that count Vietnamese among their offerings.
Pho Chef’s owners, an American couple with an eclectic gastronomical background, seem to have been determined to create an authentic Vietnamese dining experience that would still appeal to Mexican taste buds — which in Guadalajara are conservative — while drawing on a tiny core of English speaking customers to whom they were bound to appeal.
Two out of the three of us eating at Pho Chef last week expressed fond remembrances of our first experience at Vietnamese restaurants. Both of them, as it happened, were in California. We recalled our raptures about the savory broth, the sauces, the presentations, the mounds of limes and greens — basil, cilantro, lettuce — served in and alongside pho (pronounced “fah”), the rice-noodle-and-broth based dish that, as Pho Chef informs its Mexican customers, is the classic Vietnamese dish, a healthy, hefty, delicious, speedy and economical soup to which is added beef, chicken, shrimp or no meat at all, plus pristine fresh vegetables such as soybean sprouts and green onions.
We were not disappointed in Pho Chef. The ambiance was bright and clean, the staff attentive, the food tasty and well presented, especially the spring rolls, which we had as an appetizer, with thick sauce (made from sweet hoisin sauce mixed with peanut butter) on the side.
Spring rolls are a bit different from Chinese egg rolls — they are not fried but wrapped in translucent rice paper, artistically presented, and stuffed with wonderful things. (Those may include sprouts, lettuce, basil or mint!) We had one order (four rolls) made with puerco a la parrilla (grilled pork) and another with tofu, for the vegetarian in our party — a total of 8 rolls for 122 pesos. Very impressive.
As entrees, one of us ordered a Pho Chef menu item that seems to be a nod to this part of Mexico — a Banh Mi sandwich (made with res a la parrilla/grilled beef) for 89 pesos. The Banh Mi comes in five varieties, including a vegetarian one, and reminds one of that local favorite, the torta ahogada, except the Banh Mi has more vegetables and is not swimming in sauce. It is made with french bread filled with slices of rare beef and colorful, pickled vegetables. A range of sauces are on the table or served with the Banh Mi, and include fish sauce, srirachi hot chili sauce and others.
Another person ordered a large Pho Tai (made with thin-sliced rare beef, which did not look rare but is briefly cooked) for 126 pesos; and our vegetarian got a small (but still large) Pho Tofu (made with tofu and your choice of broth) for 86 pesos. The Mexican in our group enjoyed a bowl of pickled turnips and sliced green chili peppers that was served with our entrees.
Since Pho Chef does not yet boast a license for beer and wine, we ordered cups of jasmine tea, warm and cold. They also serve green tea, soft drinks and bottled aguas frescas.
I admit I made a mess trying to share noodles from my Pho Tai by using the ceramic spoon — a complete failure — instead of the unique pronged tongs that had been thoughtfully put on the table for just this purpose.
None of us touched the chopsticks. I clumsily ate my noodles with a fork and the large ceramic spoon, twirling the noodles in the spoon as I would spaghetti.
Later, I learned that the approved method for pho eating is grabbing a few noodles with the chopsticks, lowering your head to the bowl and sucking them in. It is noisy but not too messy if you get your head close enough to the bowl. Meat and vegetables should be grabbed with the chopsticks and perhaps dipped in a sauce that has been judiciously put on a small side dish. The ceramic spoon is meant only for the broth but once the noodles and chunky items have been chopsticked down, it is de rigueur to lift the bowl to your lips and drink the broth.
Pho lovers warn against immediately going for the sauce. They say that the broth, if well made, has been cooked for hours, is an art form and, besides the meat or seafood flavor, may be spiced with star anise, ginger, cinnamon, fennel, onions, cloves and cardamom. Wow.
But on my first visit to Pho Chef, I neglected to focus on my beef broth — the specialty of the house — decided it “needed something” and committed the sin of adding fish sauce. My discerning dining companions, however, found the broth exactly right. On my second visit, I did stop to smell the broth, found it full of pleasant undertones and didn’t add any sauces. I also utilized the chopsticks and did better with the noodles.
One surprising thing I learned is that in Vietnam, pho is a breakfast dish served at street stalls! Yes, people in Ho Chi Minh City line up at stalls to get their fresh pho, finishing up by 11 a.m. Reminds me of the stands that pepper Guadalajara early in the day, where tacos and, yes, Coca-cola are the morning ritual. Maybe Pho Chef should consider opening such a stand, since the high turnover rate of restaurants in this city is a perennial problem.