Blink while you're driving through the Medical Center and you may miss the sign for House of Pho. The restaurant itself doesn't face Louis Pasteur Drive, though that's its address; it's situated off to the side, beyond a chain sandwich shop in a strip center where music blares out to the parking lot in a way that is anything but inviting.
But step inside the tiny restaurant and you'll feel transported. The setting is tranquil with an almost Zen-like sense of serenity. Moe Lazri of Fig Tree Restaurant and Little Rhein Steakhouse designed the interior with clean lines that practically gleamed in the afternoon sun, comfortable chairs and a few spare touches, including a Mondrian-influenced mirror.
Beautiful as the place is, it's the food that will make you a true fan. The menu isn't terribly extensive, and many of the dishes overlap. Do you want the lemongrass-charred pork chop with rice or rice noodles? A few vegetarian dishes made with tofu are balanced by the beef broths, and a trio of Lenten seafood specials have been tacked to the wall. Nothing is so exotic as to scare newcomers to Vietnamese food, and the descriptions of each dish had us wanting to try most everything available.
A recent lunch started with an artfully arrayed serving of spring rolls. These were not the greasy little bite-sized pieces you find all-too-often at Vietnamese places around town, but seriously hot treats filled with mushrooms, cabbage and carrots among another wonderful ingredients.
On the side were fresh lettuce leaves to wrap them with, or toppings such as cilantro and mint and a drop or two of fish sauce. I would have liked a little more of the herbs, especially the cilantro, but the dish certainly made us hungry for more.
It was quickly followed by a bold chicken salad with plenty of carrot shavings, peanuts and daikon mixed with strips of moist chicken breast. Shallots fried until crisp and sprinkled over the top added a contrasting texture as well as a sweet-salty flavor. Around the side were rice crisps in case you wanted to pile the salad on for an Asian taco.
Lemongrass-charred pork chop over noodles
House of Pho knows its carrots. They were used to great advantage in several preparations, as I've mentioned, including the spring rolls, the fish sauce and the chicken salad. But it was on top of a bun bowl that they really shone. The shredded bits in this case had been soaked in rice vinegar and a touch of sugar to make a tangy salad that worked well with the lemongrass-charred boneless pork chop, rice noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce and cucumber.
No visit to a place called House of Pho would be complete without a bowl of pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. The version we sampled featured well-done brisket floating in broth with red onions and cilantro leaves on top. The intoxicating aroma of cinnamon mingled with beef reached us before the bowls hit the table. The silky noodles were hidden under the thin slices of meat, and the broth had an earthy sweetness that was soon sparked to new life by the addition of strands of fresh basil, mint and a little hot sauce. What comfort!
Beef brisket pho
Check out the drink case closely before making your decision. There's fresh lemonade on the bar next to the expected iced tea and bottled coconut water in addition to the usual soda suspects.
The medical center seems to have discovered this little gem, which is only open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday. Now, it's your turn.
House of Pho
7302 Louis Pasteur Drive
Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday