Story | Shelby Moore
Photography | Mark Lipczynski
It may be impossible to wrap your head around the breadth of what Vietnamese cuisine offers. Most diners equate it first and foremost with pho, the ubiquitous soup so many restaurants name themselves after—Pho 68, Pho Van, Unphogettable, Pho Cao, Pho Avina and Pho Thanh all spread out well across the Valley.
So broth-y and aromatic, a steaming bowl comes with a plate heaping with condiments to toss in. There are limes and beansprouts, and, of course, those cooling spices of mint and cilantro that strike such a wholesome balance with the sneaky heat Vietnamese food is known for. Jalapeños, chili oil and Sriracha are also within easy reach, so that a good bowl can be as simple and as spicy as you’d prefer, and never too heavy under the hot Phoenix sun. That’s pho.
Out of the many Vietnamese restaurants in the Valley, Pho Thanh (1702 W. Camelback Road) and Da Vang (4538 N. 19th Ave.)—true institutions in this town—are the spots Phoenicians adore. At center stage is Pho Thanh, where every day except Tuesday (their day off), the pho house, which resembles a cafeteria in its capacity, fills its dozens of tables with hungry, hungry people.
The menu tops out at 162 items. Attempt to get to the bottom of a massive bowl of pho or, better yet, their bun—Vietnamese vermicelli-style noodle bowls, which are worth obsessing over, and command an obsessive appetite, too. Layers of cool rice noodles, mint, stripped carrots and tender beef at dangerously delicious levels lead down to a pool of beef and lemongrass juices, the sweetly aromatic perfume of fish sauce, and any combination of chile oil or hoisin from the condiment caddie.
Try a bowl of Bun Bo Xao (beef and lemongrass) or the Bun Nem Nuong Tau Hu Ky Cha Gio (grilled pork sausages, crispy tofu skin stuffed with ground shrimp, and egg rolls), which has a crispier texture and fishier (in a good way) proteins, as opposed to the rich, tender, heavily-seasoned hit of Vietnamese marinated beef.
These budget-friendly bowls hover at around $6, while one can snag a classic banh mi for less than $4. Family meals, for those interested in a team effort, top out at less than $9 per person. And, if you’re so inclined, indulge with a glass of Thai tea or tabletop-brewed Vietnamese iced coffee. Both are a tad sweet, which is, of course, perfect for your tad-too-spicy bowl of goodness. A fresh coconut, cut open at the top to allow for a straw, is a few extra dollars, but being transported to a Vietnamese beach has never been so worth it.
While the encyclopedic menus at Pho Thanh and Da Vang offer nearly every dish you could want, neither are anywhere near specialists of the banh mi sandwich. For that, drive up the I-17 to an industrial area of north Phoenix, where Banh Mi Bistro (2340 W. Bell Road) doesn’t serve pho, just sandwiches, bun bowls and rice plates.
Here, you’ll find sandwiches stuffed to a near-busting capacity. Unless their classic banh mi calls out to you—simply cold-cut ham and pate with the standard accouterments of jalapeno, cucumber, pickled carrot, daikon radish and cilantro—you may want to opt for their grilled pork, which comes warm to match the warm baguette it’s wrapped in, adding stark and ideal contrast to the cold vegetables and herbs piled on top. The meat is seasoned gratuitously, cooked to chewy, but tender results. Plus, you’ll also get an option you never knew possible at a Vietnamese eatery: they’ll happily add a fried egg, too.
Oh, and how about a Vietnamese dessert? A mere 10 minutes drive away from Pho Thanh and Da Vang on 43rd Avenue, is the aptly-named 43rd Express (2844 N. 43rd Ave.). They do much of the traditional Vietnamese fare to start, but dessert embraces Vietnam’s French influence: macaron ice-cream sandwiches (yes, you read that right) of the Asian-flavor set.
Provided by Macarons by Binh, a local macaron maker, sandwiches range from Thai tea, cookies and cream, mango or strawberry ice cream between bright-purple taro shells or bright-green pandan (from a green plant that that’s flavor resembles vanilla) shells. The slightly crisp outer layer of the pastry, in addition to its chewy interior, are a clear upgrade from any crumbly cookie of the store-bought variety.
This is Phoenix at its best. Macarons are cute, but aren’t particularly refreshing. A macaron ice-cream sandwich is.
The Phoenix Vietnamese dining scene offers most everything—sometimes all in one place—and certainly boasts the rewards from such gems as Banh Mi Bistro and 43rd Express. It may be impossible to wrap your head around the Valley’s Vietnamese offerings, but with these spots, you’ll have everything you need and didn’t know you wanted.