Denizens of the Eighth Avenue South corridor have responded so favorably to having Love Peace and Pho Vietnamese restaurant in their ’hood — no more cross-town trips to the west side for a pho fix — that I’d be tempted to add another word to its name: Happiness.
Of course, that would be too much, but the happiness factor does loom large at this new eatery. On all my visits, tables were filled with contented diners, heads bent over great steamy bowls, slurping noodles and rich broth.
Complex, cloudy, slightly sweet and anise-scented, the rare beef pho is a wonder to eat. Few things could make a hungry person happier on an icy January day. Unless it’s a Fried Egg-Banh Mi, a crackly baguette with a pillowy interior, stuffed with marinated cucumbers, carrots, daikon, fresh herbs and three perfectly soft-fried eggs. Give it a dash of Sriracha, and take a bite: the yolk spills over the vegetables, the bread capturing every golden drop. With contrasts of warm and cool, savory and piquant, that sandwich is a happiness delivery package.
Homage to the ’70s
Thuong Vo and her brother Minh Nguyen opened Love Peace and Pho in the retail strip at Douglas Corner on Eighth, in the former Canery Antiques site. As children who immigrated to this country post-Vietnam War in 1975, they consider this venture an homage to that life-changing time. They have imbued the restaurant with groovy colors and vibe of the 70s. Songs of that generation — ranging from John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” — play over the sound system. Foremost, they’ve assembled a menu offering their family’s dishes: authentic South Vietnamese cuisine.
Despite its nod to the past, Love Peace and Pho is up to 21st century techno-speed. The place has free Wi-Fi, its sleek dining bar outfitted with USB chargers. And, with an array of vegetarian options, (including a pho and that remarkable Fried Egg Banh Mi) there’s more to suit today’s dining preferences.
Ah, the pho. With each brimming bowl comes a “green” platter to add to the broth — wedge of lime, sliced jalapeños, mung bean sprouts, cinnamon basil and a curious pile of long serrated leaves: culantro. Sometimes called spiny coriander, it is cousin to cilantro, with a similar, yet more pronounced flavor. Be sure to add some of each to your bowl. You’ll also find your table set with neatly labeled condiments: bottles of Sriracha and hoisin, cruets of soy, fish and chili sauces, to further personalize your pho (and any other dish) with more heat, savory-sweetness and pungency.
A study in contrasts
Beyond pho, there are plenty of other dishes you’ll want to try. Spring rolls are like fresh salads in a supple rice wrapper, delectable dunked in the peanut-hoisin sauce. Turmeric-colored rice flour crepes arrive warm and crisp, the vegetarian style tucked with firm tofu, Chinese broccoli, onion and bean sprouts. Cut and wrap a piece in a lettuce leaf, dip it into the sweet-sour sauce and enjoy.
The Lotus root salad is different and delicious. Lightly dressed in a vinaigrette enhanced with fish sauce, it sports fresh greens, herbs and veggies (lotus root pieces are crunchy and mildly sweet), slices of steamed shrimp and pork, and airy shrimp chips. There’s a scatter of crushed peanuts across the top. Our group shared a plate; it makes a refreshing bite between courses, if you like.
The House Special Bun, which layers lettuce, vermicelli, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon, grilled pork and shrimp, fresh herbs and chopped egg rolls, is another dish of contrasting elements. The interplay of hot and cool, sour and sweet, silken and crunchy, brings real satisfaction.
Entrees of note include lemongrass chicken (it zings with chili), salt and pepper fried shrimp, and bone-gnawing good grilled pork chops, which come with a dome of rice, fried egg and a tomato-cucumber garnish.
For all the good, the young restaurant shows a few needs for improvement. One concerns a dish that may simply be not be to the liking of Western palates. The shrimp-pork dumplings, made with cassava flour, had a rubbery, almost impenetrable texture rejected roundly at the table.
Other issues have to do with finesse and consistency in preparation. On one visit, the grilled pork spring roll, freshly filled with noodles, shredded lettuce, chive, mint and green apple, was superb, yet on another visit, the distinctive green apple was disappointingly absent from the wrap.
Another time, the banh mi had been filled with a hulking length of cucumber, the ungainly heft detracting from the enjoyment of the sandwich. These can be easily remedied.
When warmer weather arrives, you’ll want to indulge in the iced coffee made with Café du Monde beans and sweetened condensed milk. But for now, there’s ready contentment — happiness — in sharing a pot of hot jasmine tea.
9:00 AM January 16, 2015
As I walk up to the newest Vietnamese place on Eighth Avenue, I can hear Don Cornelius signing off at the end ofSoul Train, wishing me "Love ... Peace ... and PHOOOOOOOOOO."
Of course it's pronounced "fuh," not "foe," but that's just Minh Nguyen and his sister Thuong Vo having fun with Americans consistently mispronouncing the name of one of Vietnam's best culinary exports, the beef noodle soup known as pho. The two are children of the wave of Vietnamese immigration to the U.S. in the 1970s, and they're lovers of the decade, which helps explain Love, Peace and Pho's name as well as the classic rock that was playing in the restaurant.
I was excited — almost giddy — when I heard that Love, Peace and Pho was opening in the old Cane-ery spot on Eighth. First, most of the Vietnamese restaurants in town are clustered on Charlotte Pike, and getting a decent bowl of pho has meant schlepping out to the West Side. But second, Nguyen and Vo are concentrating their efforts on the South Vietnamese style of their family, which means a different kind of pho — one that's supposed to be a little brighter, lighter and fresher.
Certainly the bowl of pho with sliced beef ($10.50) that I ordered came with more green herbs to dunk in the broth than I expected. But the combination of greens and some healthy slices of jalapeño gave the base a nice kick. It was outstanding. There was a mild sweetness, too, that you don't find in the Northern Vietnamese-style pho I've come across in Nashville. Maybe that was a little MSG or star anise, but I'm not complaining. Using the table's condiments, you can make your pho spicier (with chili or Sriracha) or funkier (fish sauce) or sweeter (hoisin sauce), something I played with over a few trips. I'll tell you this: Go easy on the chili sauce unless you want to feel your pulse in your lips.
There are five varieties of pho, including a vegetarian option, and all come in large and small sizes. You can make a meal out of one bowl, but then you'd be missing some great food.
On successive trips I liked the egg rolls ($4.50, good), traditional spring rolls ($5.50, better) and the grilled sausage spring rolls ($6.50, best, because what's better than house-made sausage and Granny Smith apples inside of a spring roll? Nothing). Also not to be missed were the rock sugar spare ribs ($6.50), bite-sized little pieces that reminded me of the flavor of tender Korean-style flank-cut short ribs.
Of all of the salads, the house special noodle salad ($10.50) stood out. With bits of pork and shrimp, sliced-up egg rolls, cucumber and cilantro on top of vermicelli noodles, it's also a meal unto itself. My companion and I tried sharing it, but the thing that made it great — pieces of caramelized goodness on top of noodles with a special sauce — also made it a bit unwieldy. Be prepared to make a little bit of a mess.
Entreés run the gamut of a fried rice special ($9) to crispy crepes (seafood and vegetarian options, both $9.50) that fell apart combining with fresh greens and sprouts — they were still delicious — to grilled beef and pork sausage skewers ($11.50) that came with make-your-own rice paper rolls. Once we got a handle on how to eat them, the effort was worth it for the flavor.
Nguyen said he traded his family pho recipe with some folks in Portland, Ore., for their banh mi recipes, and there's evidence it was a good trade. The pork and shaking-beef options ($6 and $6.50, respectively) hit the comfort spot of a good sandwich: crunchy baguette filled with caramelized protein and piled with carrots, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeños. But the star was absolutely the banh mi fried egg ($6), with several soft, runny eggs accompanied by greens, heat and chives. On the second bite, a big yolk broke and coated the sandwich with sauce. I would have been hard-pressed to think of a way to improve on the traditional banh mi, but this merits consideration.
Love, Peace and Pho shows a lot of promise and a few niceties aimed at a different generation of diners, with free Wi-Fi and USB sockets to charge your phone. Chef Quoc Loc was brought in from Arizona by the ownership to build out a traditional Vietnamese menu, and he's been very successful, outside of the steamed shrimp and pork dumplings, which we found way too chewy to enjoy on two visits. The flavor was there, but the texture wasn't. That was the rare misstep in several very good meals.
The food made us overlook the service, too, which could have been much more attentive. We had a couple of very slow lunches and a slow dinner on a midweek evening from a very polite staff. This is likely the product of Nguyen and Vo, who already have successful businesses, being new restaurant owners. As this gets worked out — Love, Peace and Pho is only in its second month — it's got the potential to be an excellent addition to the city's dining scene and, as a bonus, an ethnic restaurant that breaks out of the "Vietnamese" area of town.
(Side note: There are people desperately trying to turn this into a neighborhood called "Eighth South" as some kind of play on 12South. Stop it. I know you've already paid for the trash cans and maybe some signage, but just stop. It's either Douglas Corner or North Melrose or ZaniesLand or something else. But the mashing and mangling of streets into neighborhood names by developers and realtors has got to stop. I'm looking at you, WeHo.)
As I walked out, the only thing missing was Don Cornelius sending me off saying, "You can bet your last money it's gonna be a stone gas, honey."
November 20, 2014
The bar is about to be raised on Nashville's noodle game, as Vietnamese restaurant Love, Peace and Pho is set to open tomorrow. Housed in the former Cane-Ery Antiques storefront at 2112 Eighth Avenue South, the restaurant is the first project from Suong Vo, who owns next door's The Nail Place, and her brother. The menu will feature a hefty number of classics (at least 50), as well as heaping bowls of pho, the popular traditional Vietnamese noodle dish. And while beer and wine will be available in the near future, they won't be at opening, as they are still waiting on their permit.
A nice bonus is that they are offering free wifi, with a liberal sprinkling of USB ports and wall outlets throughout the space, and ample parking is available on and across the street, as well as on the side of and behind the building. Hours at opening will be Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., but the owners tell Eater that they are toying with the idea of eventually expanding their weekend hours to feed the late night crowds. Do let us know if you plan on stopping by, and be sure to check back for updates.
October 7, 2014