We’ve (almost) never met a Vietnamese restaurant we didn’t like. What distinguishes the cuisine is the culinary legacy left from a century of French occupation of that country, when it was part of French Indochina. That influence includes the use of wine and butter in cooking and the additions of sauces, fresh herbs, Western vegetables, bone-based stocks, more beef-based recipes and, of course, the baguette (think bánh mì sandwich).
That leads us to the family-owned Pho #1, where most everything is made from scratch from heirloom recipes. It’s really two restaurants sharing the same name, under one ownership. Here’s how that works:
The original restaurant is small and narrow, but has offered a surprisingly lengthy menu since it opened under new ownership five years ago. Our go-to’s have included hefty spring rolls, crispy grilled pork with vermicelli, stir-fried chicken zingy with orange zest, and deeply flavored soups from homemade stocks – chicken noodle, wonton and pho (pronounced “fuh”), the beef noodle soup that’s the national dish of Vietnam.
Over the past 11 months, from the time it was built out, we waited patiently (or not) for the much larger, conjoined second dining room to open. It’s so well-designed and handsomely decorated (by head cook and co-owner Binh Nguyen) that it may as well be another restaurant altogether. Only it’s not.
During that wait, we talked with principal owner Lien Nguyen (Binh’s sister), who told us the new room would host both lunch and dinner. The dinner menu would emphasize “more fancy specialty items,” she said. Simultaneously, the smaller original restaurant would be devoted to the popular takeout part of the business. New items would be added to the takeout menu, which would double as the lunch menu in the new space.
All of that dovetailed a few weeks ago, so we dropped by for a look-see. The room is a comfy, classy delight of hand-crafted woodwork (Binh Nguyen again), blown-glass art, plants, dimmer-switched cam lighting, paper lanterns and simple but striking wall decorations.
But wait a minute. … What’s that long wood-and-glass case against the back wall, beneath the mini-movie screen flashing a slide show of scenic images? Why, it’s a self-serve WineEmotion wine-dispensing system, with 32 rotating red and white varieties served in 1-ounce, half-glass or full-glass portions, at various prices. So who needs a sommelier?
The dinner menu features 55 dishes ($6 to $18), with a second menu of 17 vegetarian items ($5 to $9.50). We started with “potstickers,” delicate gyoza-like dumplings that are nothing like the clunky, thick-skin version so ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants. We followed them with asparagus-crab soup – bits of crisp asparagus and fresh crab in chicken broth made silken with egg white, with added flavor from green onion and cilantro. A must-have.
The rice crepes were the best we’ve found (yes, we’ve hunted and tasted) – lightly textured and darkly crisp, filled with shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, jicama and other veggies. The ritual goes like this: Cut off a piece of crepe and place it on a piece of butter leaf or curly Romaine lettuce. Add shredded carrot, cucumber, mint leaves and cilantro. Wrap it up, dip in sauce, repeat.
The kitchen was out of grilled beef ribs that night, so we opted for a plate of excellent shaking beef, so named for the technique of shaking the skillet back and forth as the dish cooks. The tender cubes of steak were wed to a delicious lemon-butter sauce and served over salad, making the onions, tomato and lettuce a whole lot better. “There’s a ton of flavor in this,” said one dinner pal. “This is the kind of food you should get in a Vietnamese restaurant,” said another.
We also sampled meaty chicken wings in an intense, delectable sauce and scrumptious wide noodles in delicate garlic sauce with grilled shrimp. We heeded the advice of the forthcoming Mai Nguyen Pham, one of the Nguyens’ several sisters who work there: Call a day ahead and order a live lobster to team with those noodles. Consider it done.
Lastly, a hot clay pot full of tender chicken breast arrived, the coconut milk-based sauce also nestling carrot, potato, onion and basil. The juices from the ingredients mingled with the mild yellow curry to produce what resembled a luscious chicken stew. Clay pot cookery is thousands of years old and indigenous to numerous cultures around the world and is a house specialty at Pho #1.
We’ll make a second run for those absent beef ribs and explore the menu some more. We might even try the lotus and jellyfish salad. How often do you get the chance?
Where: In the Quail Pointe Center, 5323 Sunrise Blvd., Fair Oaks
Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. Dinner is 5-9 p.m. daily. Take-out is available 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
How much: $$-$$$
Information: 916-966-2020; www.facebook.com