By Ron Bechtol
Used to be you could ascribe the presence of Asian restaurants in San Antonio to the city's military bases and their operations in the Far Eastern theater. Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean restaurants, in particular, fell under this mantle. But with military attention directed to other fronts these days, that same rationale is hard to maintain, and we have to look elsewhere for the continuing growth of Asian restaurant operations. Families bringing family members into the country is one possibility. Growth in sophistication on the part of the Alamo City audience is another - if you can overlook Chinese buffets. What this means, regardless of the reasons, is that a new Asian restaurant has to live up to more exacting standards now than, say, 20 years ago - or even 10; the thrill of the new is no longer enough.
Pho San Antonio is new, and its name suggests an emphasis on the classic Vietnamese noodle soups we had hardly heard of a decade ago. In truth, though, only five such soups are available; the rest of the menu is more extensive. Much more.
We began with banh bao, steamed buns. Though Pho SA doesn't admit to serving Chinese dishes (all the Vietnamese dishes are also labeled in Chinese characters, however) that's what this is in essence; it's just like the small steamed buns, stuffed with ground pork and shrimp, you might find on a dim sum cart. Presented in a bamboo steaming basket, there's a slight pastiness to the bun itself, but the filling is very good and the dipping sauce takes it back into the Vietnamese realm - a fish sauce base will do it every time.
Vietnamese fish sauce, also known as nuoc mam, figures even more pungently in the Vietnamese fish sour soup (S3 on the menu), but the odd ingredient out is chunks of pineapple. The fruit adds sweetness to a broth that is also filled with fresh okra, bean sprouts, fresh tomato, and still-crisp slices of celery and jalapeño. Oh yes, and fish. In fact, we could have done without the fish; it was, well, fishy (though not off, I hasten to add). I frankly don't know what the sour came from (that aspect was downplayed, however), but the broth and its flotsam made for a very appealing package, fish excepted.
Our chatty waitress having regaled us with tales of the freshness (and uniqueness) of Pho SA ingredients, we decided to order DB1, which you will immediately recognize as stir-fried razor clam with black bean sauce and basil. Here it is mixed half-and-half with mussels, which aren't on the menu.
"Vietnamese people prefer mussels," we were assured. Perhaps not these mussels, however; they were the impressive green lip variety but chewy enough for us to suspect they had been previously frozen. The clams, on the other hand, were fine - as was the black bean sauce augmented by peppery basil. Unless fresh mussels are guaranteed, stick to the clams. The soft shell crabs that take two forms on the menu are also likely to be frozen, but the salt-toasted version is nonetheless especially tempting.
Following a discussion of "XO sauce," we were also seduced into ordering bo xao xa, or beef stir-fried in said sauce. The name is alleged to have come from the XO brandy, and it implies a certain portion of the spirit. There might not actually be as much of it in the sauce as we'd like, but the taste is there to a degree, and it works with the thinly sliced beef, straw mushrooms, bell peppers, and onion. It's a little sweet, but there is also an appealing smokiness bolstered by the scent of star anise. This is not as exotic a dish as the culinary thrill-seeker might hope to encounter, but it's certainly satisfying.
Also worth sampling is the black grass jelly, curiously listed as a dessert. The black grass is very similar to tea, except that it is served in a loosely jellied form with ice. Its flavor is pleasantly bracing and not particularly sweet, making this a possible substitute for our ubiquitous iced tea. Try it with a banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich on French bread, for example. As usual, it's the feckless bread that's the Achilles heel of the sandwich (BM4), which is otherwise a rewarding combination of BBQ pork and beef with crisp daikon, carrot, and cucumber.
Phinally, back to pho. This I did as a take-out, and I have to admit the packaging was superb: Broth in a sturdy, plastic container; meats (I had the Pho San Antonio, a combination of steak, brisket, and meatballs), bean sprouts, and some unexpected tripe in a Styrofoam container - all layered over the rice noodles. Lemon, stalks of mint, and sliced jalapeños to augment the soup were carefully wrapped in plastic film. Some assembly is required, of course, but it's only a little more work than if the soup is consumed in-house. I actually appreciated not having to use the usual amount of noodles. (And not being in the public eye when I slurped them.)
Verdict? Both the kitchen and I did well, with chewy meatballs my only real complaint. As usual with such soups, the more you let the various ingredients sit in the already flavorful broth - at least long enough to let some flavors meld - the better off you are. There's a metaphor here, if you care to look for it. •