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