Wednesday, October 31, 2007

REVIEW - Pho Grand

Pho Grand
3195 South Grand
St. Louis, MO 63118
(314) 664-7435

Right, right. Everyone in St. Louis has already been to Pho Grand. Well, sorry, but I had a mad craving for pho all weekend and my regular pho-making local, Banh Mi So, was closed for vacation. It doesn't hurt that Pho Grand is consistently great and greatly consistent, either. It also didn't hurt that Pho Grand actually got better after it was moved to another location down the street, which is more than I can say for one of my older Vietnamese favorites, LemonGrass.

Speaking of LemonGrass, there are a few choices for Vietnamese if you happen to be on South Grand near Tower Grove. I've been to nearly all of them, and I prefer the cozy, warm, more informal atmosphere of Pho Grand to other places that cover their seats in plastic and space tables to provide elbow room enough for the rudest of Americans.

We walked into Pho Grand at around 6:00pm on a Sunday night, and even though the dining room looked nearly full, we were seated immediately. This was a preview of the service at Pho Grand, which is attentive and efficient. I want to say that it borders on militaristic, but that implies unfriendliness, and that's just not how it is there. For anyone who wants a Chochkie's-type of server who offers to set you up with some chicken fajita poppers while giving you a good look at his dental caps, Pho Grand might not be your type of place. But for someone who wants a swift, competent, and cordial server, please get down to South Grand for some pho.

For an appetizer, Graham and I split an order of Crispy Chicken Wings. They come seven to a plate, covered in a caramelized garlic sauce. The wings were a burnished bronze, coated in a sauce studded with minced garlic and red chili flakes. The sweetness of caramelization was most evident at first, but the heady garlic and the chili provided just enough heat to make these wings not at all like anything you'd get at TGI Friday's. Or Chochkie's.

They weren't soggy, they weren't burnt, and there was enough gristle around the tender globes of meat to make you believe that maybe, just maybe, these wings were different than the ones KFC reportedly has grown mutant Godzilla chickens to achieve. But it was the sauce that made these wings. It may be gauche to run your finger through the sauce when all the wings are gone, but I'm only human.

We'd been encouraged to order our entrees at the same time as we ordered our appetizer, which explains why our server landed my pho and Graham's shaking beef as soon as the last chicken wing left the plate. It didn't seem rushed, though, because the chicken wing plate (still pooled with the glorious garlic sauce) was allowed to stay.

I've never been to Vietnam, but based on what I've read and how it makes me feel, I can only guess that pho is what Vietnamese moms make their kids on sick days. It's the perfect comfort food. You start with a clear broth. From there, cook some rice noodles, protein, scallions, and leafy veggies or herbs in the broth. Aromatics like lemongrass, ginger, and other herbs are used, but what kind and how much depend on the cook. Pho is served basically plain with a plate of vegetables and sauces on the side. Like in most Asian countries, food is garnished by the eater.

Pho Grand has several different versions of pho, including beef, chicken, tofu, seafood, and ones with vermicelli noodles instead of the fatter rice noodles. I chose a version with medium-rare sliced eye of round and beef meatballs. The sliced beef scared me at first. Because it was cooked in the broth, the pink color was gone from all but one slice. Also, the slices were so thin that the meat had crenulated, creating something that looked terrifyingly similar to tripe (Pho Grand does serve a tripe pho, if you're into that). However, they had a very tender, beefy texture in the mouth, a full flavor, and there was none of that sweat-like smell that tripe can produce. The so-called meatballs were actually slices of smooth beef sausage. Again, these were pale from cooking in the broth, but the flavor was so good and they were packed with juice.

My pho had the standard aroma and flavor, but there was also something like either star anise (looks like pinwheels of cinnamon and tastes like licorice) or galangal (spicy, astringent, ginger-like herb). Although pepper is usually served on the side in Vietnam, Pho Grand grated theirs directly into the bowl. To garnish my pho, I usually go with some torn basil, cilantro, lime, garlic-chili sauce, and a few squirts of hoisin (think Asian soy-barbecue sauce).

Once your garnishes are mixed, it's time to eat. Chopsticks are used for the solids, and spoons are used for the broth. While it's totally acceptable to slurp your broth, please don't tip your bowl to your mouth like you're drinking cereal milk. (Yes, I understand how that sounds, but I've seen Midwesterners eat, okay?) Another thing to remember is that although pho is soup, it's filling like a stew, and it doesn't re-heat very well. This might be my only complaint about Pho Grand, because the enormous bowls of steaming, tasty goodness are just about impossible to finish.

Graham got the shaking beef (Bo Luc Lac). This is tender, peppered beef chunks sauteed with onions, garlic, chili, and sometimes (though not at Pho Grand) pineapple. The mess is served with rice, cilantro, julienned carrots, and the standard tableside garnishes. Graham raved about it, and I believe he also said "Dude, even the rice is good." Luckily, I have a very generous boyfriend who doesn't mind if I nick a piece (or four) of beef off his plate. Luckily, he's got a girlfriend who's enthusiastic about letting him try some pho.

Dessert isn't a very big deal in Vietnamese cuisine, at least not in the standard American way of doing it. However, I am who I am, and that is a person who loves sweets. To remedy this, we each ordered an iced coffee.

Vietnamese iced coffee is very different from anything you can order at Starbucks (thank god). For starters, the coffee itself is very strong, French-roast coffee. Pho Grand's menu advertises that theirs is French chicory coffee (chicory is a root with a very bold, bitter taste, and using it in coffee is common in French-colonized places like New Orleans and, well, Vietnam). The coffee comes to your table as a glass topped with a metal strainer. You wait for the coffee to strain into the glass, which already contains a few inches of sweetened, condensed milk. Once the coffee has drained, you mix the two together and fill your glass with ice.

It's dense. It's syrupy. It's strong. It's bitter. It's sweet. It's the most awesome coffee drink you've ever had and will (hopefully) break you of that $5.00 a day Frappucino habit. Pho Grand's iced coffee is some of the best in St. Louis. I highly recommend ordering a glass no matter how full your pho left you.


Anonymous said...

Great Review! Great Restaurant! Great Googly-Moogly!

Anonymous said...

Very "American" description of Vietnemese food. Your description of pho is off by quite a bit but at least you didn't order eggrolls.