While there is an overabundance of Chinese, Japanese and Thai restaurants in Pittsburgh, Vietnamese restaurants, not so much. What’s funny is that two of the city’s Vietnamese restaurants are within blocks of each other on Penn Avenue in the historic Strip District. Although D and I had eaten at Vietnam’s Pho before, we preferred Pho Van and that is where we dined on our most recent culinary outing.
I think one of the main reasons I like Vietnamese food so much is that it’s not as common and readily available as Chinese food; it was not a “take out” staple when growing up so it’s still a relatively new type of cuisine for most Americans. (I do want to add the disclaimer on that I know American Chinese food is nothing like the food found in China so I certainly don’t want to generalize about Chinese cooking.)
Pho Van is a family run establishment with no frills whatsoever, although the interior is warm and inviting to diners due to the row of bamboo that runs along one wall. Since our last visit, there are now new menus complete with glossy color photographs of some of the dishes, a significant difference from the older menus which were on printer style paper and only had black text.
To drink I ordered a sinh to, a Jack fruit smoothie for $4 (Jack fruit is a tropical fruit closely related to the breadfruit). Although I was disappointed that bubble tea is not offered at Pho Van, the smoothies are a worthy substitute, especially since they offer exotic options like avocado and sapota, not just strawberry and banana.
We began with an order of the chao gio, two crispy fried spring rolls for $4. They were made with ground pork, mushrooms, carrots and clear noodles and served with a sweet chili garlic sauce. Although some people prefer gio cuon, summer rolls, neither D nor I are fans of the taste of rice paper. As opposed to chao gio, goi cuon are not fried; it is essentially a cold roll filled with many of the same ingredients as the fried spring rolls. I can imagine that goi cuon are perfect when enjoyed in the hot and humid weather of Hanoi, but for me in non-balmy Pittsburgh, fried spring rolls are much preferred.
A couple of months ago I made banh xeo which is a Vietnamese crepe. (Vietnam was once a colony of France so much of French cuisine mixed with that of Vietnam’s.) Although it turned out okay, I know that it would most likely taste better professionally prepared at a restaurant. While I love pho, Vietnam’s most famous dish, I always order it and thought this would be the perfect time to try out the banh xeo. Although Pho Van offers banh xeo as an appetizer for $8, it was a decent sized portion for a smaller entree and when paired with another appetizer, it can definitely serve as someone’s entree. Banh xeo is made with rice flour and if you’ve never had it before, it has an unusual taste. However, contrary to my crepe which was a bit on the thicker side (not exactly how crepes should be), the one at Pho Van was thin and delicious. It was stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. Although I wish the ratio of pork and shrimp to bean sprouts had been somewhat more even, it was still very good. I’ve read that banh xeo is one of Vietnam’s most popular street foods so when I go, I’ll know what to order.
D had the mi xao don, pan fried noodles for $15. While this entree was definitely one of the restaurant’s most expensive offerings, the portion was extremely generous and featured a lot of stir-fried pork, beef, chicken and shrimp along with the vegetables. Although D said it wasn’t exactly what he thought it would be (he was envisioning softer noodles while these were definitely on the crunchier side), he still enjoyed it. It did come with a sauce to pour on top of the noodles which helped in softening them.
All in all, for a home cooked style meal in a no-frills setting, Pittsburgh’s Pho Van is it.