Banh Mi Pho Shop
Out of a possible five
Naming its second location Banh Mi Pho Shop instead of Banh Mi Barista like its original store tells you a lot about the new place on Fairfield Avenue.
You can still get Vietnamese iced coffees, bubble teas, smoothies and the same delicious banh mi sandwiches at the new spot, but its noodle soups have been expanded and emphasized here.
In addition to the beef and chicken pho that eventually became menu staples at the north store, this new one serves ramen dishes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and offers specialty egg noodle dishes on Thursdays and Fridays. And I will always be going on those days because they were fantastic.
The pork ramen was the best soup I had there and was one of the best soups I have had anywhere recently. The curly noodles were in a cauldron of bubbling-hot, spicy red broth. It had two kinds of pork; a shredded, slow-roasted pork and thick slices of delectable pork belly with its unctuous fat that melted in my mouth.
A split, soft-boiled egg added richness, and it had red onions, culantro – a lettuce like herb – and one whole winter melon stem that made it more interesting visually and in flavor. It was dusted with black and white sesame seeds and was nearly flawless. The only thing I might have added was a little raw shredded bok choy or maybe sprouts to give it crunch.
Pork was the egg noodle soup du jour on the Thursday I visited – shrimp and beef are only offered now – and it, too, made me blissful. It had thick, tender, fatty slices of slow-cooked pork butt, onions, a bevy of leafy herbs, a little bunch of delicious enoki mushrooms and was topped with crispy fried onions that added the crunch the ramen was missing. Its broth was cloudier and richer than the standard pho broth, making this a heartier soup that was just right this time of year with temperatures dropping.
Other things that separate the new from the old are the addition of fried rice, shrimp egg rolls in addition to vegetable ones and offering the BMP pork chop plate every day – it is only available on Wednesday and Thursday at the north store.
My pork egg roll was tightly wrapped and not very big, but it was hot and crisp. I would have liked more pork in it, but it was still decent. The spring rolls at Banh Mi are a better choice. These raw, wrapped beauties burst with freshness from the crunchy cucumbers, carrots and lettuce. The vegetarian one, which has plenty of tiny tofu pieces and creamy avocado along with the carrots, cucumbers and lettuce, was better than I expected.
The BMP had a decent-sized chop that was nicely seasoned and had a nice lightly grilled flavor, a runny fried egg, rice and slaw. It was OK, but it is clearly not the most exciting thing you will get at Banh Mi and not what I would go there for.
All of the items that I have grown to appreciate over the years at the original Banh Mi were just as good at the new spot.
The chicken rice noodle bowl was about as perfect as a cold noodle bowl – or bun – could be. It had warm chicken pieces with a tasty and slightly peppery Asian marinade, and warm noodles with cold, crunchy cucumbers, lettuce and carrot strands to give it a wonderful contrast. The sweet dressing to pour over it all brought it together nicely and I gladly ate every bit of it.
The banh mi sandwiches were great, and I again had a hard time deciding which one was best, the Viet Special – with marinated pork and a pressed steamed pork – or the Korean beef. The tender beef marinated in the traditional Korean sweet soy-based sauce is always fantastic, but the mix of the pork, which is seasoned similar to the chicken in the noodle bowl, and the soft, almost bologna-like steamed pork in the Viet is just as addictive. Both were served on perfectly toasted baguettes with crunchy pickled carrots, cucumbers and daikon radish, mayo, cilantro and jalapeņo (optional), and were basically flawless.
The beef pho is always great at Banh Mi and I have grown to love getting a baby version of the Vietnamese soup at lunch. This smaller version, which is not highly publicized and is $6.25 instead of the normal $9, is just the right size to pair with an egg roll or spring roll. The broth is rich and its flavor lets you know it took hours to make.
It had sliced steak, little meatballs and onions and comes with the standard accompaniments – fresh basil, cilantro and sprouts – but I always have to ask for more basil.
And the folks at Banh Mi Pho Shop were more than happy to bring me more. The service at this new spot – like the original – is fantastic. Not only are the employees cheery and helpful, they sort of make you feel like a regular even if you aren't one. And if you are a regular, you will be made to feel like family.
The new space in a former doughnut shop has been transformed nicely, and though not stunning in any way, it is comfortable with a funky, colorful paint scheme and there are some nice details like dangling globe planters and menu murals sort of hidden on the back wall. Its acoustics are bad, however, so it can be noisy and that noise echoes badly.
Restaurant: Banh Mi Pho Shop
Address: 1925 Fairfield Ave.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Spring rolls ($4.25), pork egg rolls ($1.25), Korean beef or Viet Special banh mi ($5.50), pork ramen ($13.08; $8 baby), egg noodle soup ($9), chicken noodle bowl ($7.50)
Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.