Drive too fast down Columbia’s International Corridor, and you’ll miss a real gem of a place: Pho Viet (pronounced “Fuh Vee-yet”) at 2300 Decker Boulevard. Cultural diversity takes center stage on this particular stretch of road, but hidden amidst the Latino bakeries and Asian markets, Pho Viet doesn’t stand out.
Yes, the building appears to be a revived Burger King with a bad paint job and a duct-taped drive-through window: but what it lacks in aesthetics, this place makes up for on flavor.
I’m willing to wager that while a number of the euphemistically “understated” establishments dotting Decker have bragging rights as truly delicious ethnic food, it can be difficult to justify eating out of your comfort zone if you don’t have a credible testimony first.
Readers, the reassurance you have been waiting for is finally here! The atmosphere is Asian-inspired without fuss (READ: there is tiki-style grass above the tables and you have the option of eating with chopsticks).
For those of you unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine, let me provide the disclaimer that this type of food is not comparable with Chinese fare. Americans’ conception of ethnic food in its entirety can be tainted by a particular culture, and I think this is especially true of Asian cuisine. Do not do yourself the disservice of falling into this trap.
What you can expect from Vietnamese cuisine is vibrant fish sauces, chile-based marinades, and finely-sliced, palate-cleansing veggies. The beauty of Vietnamese cuisine is that it’s not especially heavy… that is, of course, until you eat too much of it.
None of the essences seem to unpleasantly overpower the other; there is a happy marriage of spicy goodness with light and crisp elements, a unity of sweetness joining the subtle, savory quality of perfectly-sliced meat.
Pho—the famous dish which the restaurant features in its moniker—is a delicate soup whereby the stock is either chicken or beef-based. There are a number of warm, familiar spices added to the broth, most notably hints of coriander and star anise. Despite its many variations, the favored elements in pho are flank steak, Thai basil, fresh mung beans, sliced jalapenos, and lime (the latter four usually presented on a separate plate and added by the diner according to individual taste).
Pho purists will debate upon what is and is not authentic, but many types of pho will incorporate beef tendon, meatballs, or seafood into the mix. Authentic or not, it’s difficult to find a meal that satisfies so well without making one feel heavy afterward.
If you’re in an especially ravenous mood, set the tone for the meal with some fresh rolls and peanut-y hoisin sauce. Another worthwhile menu recommendation is the vermicelli noodles with pork and shrimp, doused in sweet and tangy fish sauce.
The laid-back wait staff will easily coerce you into having a Vietnamese beer, and lager lover though I may be, Export 33 really ties the meal together. This brown-bottle marvel is so well-balanced, it’s hard not to slow down and appreciate the lightly hoppy beauty of it. For non-drinkers, there are other tasty options like pickled lemonade and Vietnamese coffee.
For those of you who don’t venture to the International Corridor very often, there’s another Pho Viet located right on 2011 Devine Street in Five Points.
Whichever spot you decide upon, relax and allow yourself to be delighted by a diamond in the rough serving up some of the tastiest dishes you’ll ever crave.