When looking for great places to eat ethnic food, don’t overlook the obvious. We’d heard nothing but good about Pho Cali Vietnamese Noodle House on Main Street, but had no idea what to expect or what to order. When checking out an ethnic cuisine we don’t know well, we always like to speak to someone who knows the cuisine first hand. So Mart turned to his pedicure technician Helen, a lovely Vietnamese lady who works at Mya Nails on Bee Ridge Road. (“Pedicure today Mr. Mart? What color? Ha! Ha!”)
Not only did Helen make a few recommendations, but she wrote them down in Vietnamese, with instructions that all we had to do is “hand this note to the waitress.” And why not!
First thing we noticed when we walked into Pho Cali was how packed the place was on a quiet weekday night. Do these folks know something we don’t? Must be! Pho Cali feels like you could be at an Asian diner in New York or Toronto. This place was absolutely buzzing! I felt like Jerry Seinfeld could be sitting at one of the tables! Not one of the staff stood still for a minute. So you can imagine how tickled our server was when we handed over the suggested menu Helen gave us. She happily pointed out where each suggestion translated into English and even wrote down their order number from the menu.
Looking around, it seemed like a good opportunity for Mart to try a new brand of beer, so the only recommendation he asked from our server was for a beer, and she suggested the 33 Export from Vietnam. I decided to try something different as well and went with a coconut water, which is essentially the juice from a raw coconut. Served over ice, it was simply refreshing.
While everything Helen recommended sounded great, we could see the portions were large, so we started by sharing the “oh-so fresh ” (my words) Shrimp Spring Roll with peanut dipping sauce. The size the spring rolls were. . . well, you decide. Compare the size of the spring roll in the photo to the size of the beer bottle. They obviously don’t believe in skimping at Pho Cali. We were quite happy we decided to share these delicious bites of yum! Even the bowl of peanut sauce was large enough that Mart kept it and dipped his vegetables from his entree into it as well. Happy guy!
Helen had recommended two main courses, so we decided to follow her lead, get both and share. WOW! Both were really, really delicious. I don’t know how Helen knew what we’d like, but she is excellent at recommending entrees at Pho Cali. One of the dishes was a grilled shrimp and pork rice vermicelli bowl served with lettuce, mint, bean sprouts, cucumber, roasted peanuts, pickled carrots/radish and house sauce. Unbelievable. This dish tasted like something your mother would want you to order when you are feeling a little down and need something 100% healthy! Each individual component in this dish tasted so fresh and delightful. Nothing was encumbered by unnecessary spice. It was just brilliant. One or two bites into the dish and Mart was already saying “I can’t WAIT to come back here again!” (If you want to try it yourself, it is #78 on the menu.)
The second entree on Helen’s list was a seafood stir-fry on a bed of crispy egg noodles with sauteed broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, bok choy, snow peas and onions in a brown garlic sauce. You’ll find it at #73 on their menu. The combination of flavors was spectacular and the chefs did an amazing job serving the various veggies at the exact amount of ‘doneness”. When the dish arrived at the table we knew we were in for a treat based on the amazing colors of the vegetables alone. Most cooks think stir frying is easy — but not to this quality. . . Me? When I stir fry I’m lucky if the snow peas haven’t gone limp and brown before the broccoli and carrots are al dente.
If you’ve never tried Vietnamese food, you’ll want to consider their beef noodle soups – or pho – as in Pho Cali. I’ve had pho before, and found it to be a wonderfully healthy way to eat. While we didn’t have any pho that night, believe me — we won’t be ordering it anywhere else until we sample Pho Cali’s. A good third of the diners that night were enjoying one of the 19 different pho choices on the menu.
So, thinking of trying an ethnic cuisine you’ve never tried before? Why not turn to the trusted recommendations of a friend who has actually lived or spent a sizeable amount of time in that country? Who knows? Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to know someone with a fine palate like our friend Helen!