Monday, March 5, 2012

Un-Pho-Gettable: Best Vietnamese Food in Austin


My third and final post for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide is on Vietnamese food. I'll be honest; I did not grow up eating Vietnamese food and am not really sure I'm qualified to write this post, but I've eaten a whole lot of it since I moved to Austin, so I can tell you what I like.

When it's cold out or I'm getting sick, few things make me feel better than a big bowl of pho. Thin rice noodles swimming in warm broth that you flavor yourself with the fixings they bring you (basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, and lime are the accompaniments I've commonly seen) has a way of warming your soul.

A version from Pho Thaison

While I've had a fair number of bowls of pho, they've been few and far between enough that I didn't have very developed opinions about where to find the best. So I turned to my delight-pho friend Linda from Girl Eats World and asked her to weigh in on her pho-vorites. Here's what she said:

"I judge a good bowl of pho by the texture of noodles, the clarity and flavor of the broth, and most importantly, how tender the meat is. (I’m partial to brisket.) These places pass on all three of these metrics. Since its opening, Pho Dan (previously named Pho Danh) has been my favorite place for pho and spring rolls. They have the best spring rolls I’ve had and are the closest thing to my mom’s spring rolls I’ve managed to find in Austin. Other notable places for pho are Pho Saigon, which is a hop and skip away from Pho Dan, and the new PhoNatics. PhoNatics has big portions and I recommend the Banh Mi Sliders. Pho ThaiSon also delivers when it comes to perfect bowls of pho and they do it in such a darling space. If you are in town for SXSW and find yourself out late into the night, might I suggest you indulge in a bowl of pho the next day? They’re the perfect antidote to a late night out on Sixth St."

Thanks, Linda! I've yet to visit two of these spots, and they are now high on my list.

Bun (Vermicelli)
Although it probably violates some sort of Asian code, I always think of bun (a/k/a vermicelli) as the soup-less version of pho. The versions I've had have typically been layered - a hidden mound of lettuce (usually shredded iceberg) is covered by a pile of rice noodles, which in turn is topped with your choice of protein and often garnished with chopped peanuts and cilantro. It's also usually accompanied by a side of fish sauce.

Vermicelli from YaYa's Cafe

My favorite spots in town for vermicelli are currently YaYa's Cafe and Shaved Ice (full blog post here) and - I know this will probably be controversial - my nostalgic favorite, Kim Phung. Kim Phung was the first place I ever ate vermicelli (around nineteen years ago, now!), and as a graduate student, it was a rare treat to splurge on their delicious shrimp, garlic, hot pepper vermicelli (which cost less than $6 back then). I'm also fond of Kim Phung's combination spring rolls, and sometimes make a meal out of an order of those.

IMG_0022 1adj.jpg
Kim Phung's spring rolls

Banh Mi
It's too bad I never discovered banh mi while in graduate school, because these tasty Vietnamese sandwiches are the ultimate way to fill up on the cheap. My favorites are at Thanh Nhi, where the large banh mi will set you back a mere $3.50. I'm pretty sure that's less than it would cost me to make these at home! Baguette House and Tam Deli also have excellent versions. Unfortunately for those of you who live in the southern parts of Austin, all three of these spots are pretty far north - but you can get a banh mi fix closer to home at YaYa's, LuLu B's, Elizabeth Street Café, or T&N Café.

Banh mi at Thanh Nhi. Say that five times fast.

Family Style
Although pho, bun and banh mi seem to have made it into mainstream eating, family-style meals still seem to be an unjustifiably rare way to enjoy Vietnamese food. The best places for this in Austin are, hands down, Le Soleil and Sunflower. These two competing restaurants are owned by former spouses who divorced; she kept Sunflower, he moved up the road and opened Le Soleil. Both have very similar menus, but Le Soleil's is somewhat expanded. I have a slight preference for Le Soleil because they have a larger space (which means it tends to be less crowded/claustrophobic), but both deliver solid food on a consistent basis. And it is worthy of note that Sunflower garnered top honors in the Vietnamese category of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance restaurant poll. At both places, I love the sizzling seafood platter, the shaken beef, the green beans with tofu, and the sea bass (either preparation).

Sizzling seafood platter at Le Soleil

Did I miss your favorite Vietnamese place? Leave me a comment!


  1. What I would give for ONE of those places in Minneapolis!

  2. I'm so happy to have shared the sizzling seafood platter from Le Soleil with you! Yummy food memories.

  3. Thank you for this post! I've been dying to try some new Banh Mi places, and now I have a bucket list ready to go. Yum.

  4. You are doing a terrible disservice by writing a "review" of pho in Austin w/out even having tried a significant sample size. You immediately lost any credibility by not including Pho Hoang on the list, and also by including Pho Saigon.

  5. I have to try Pho Dan because I head they have a really good vegan pho which is never very good in Austin. I love Sunflower too!

  6. Anonymous, that is the exact reason that I solicited the opinion of Linda, who *has* tried a significant sample size of pho in Austin. I'm sorry you feel I've lost credibility by asking the opinion of someone I felt was an expert on the subject, but I'm not sure what else you would have me do under the circumstances.

  7. I had Sunflower just last night! I got it to-go and I have to say that was a mistake...the Imperial Rolls and fried snapper have been much better in the past when I have enjoyed them fresh in the restaurant. For pho, my go-to is Pho Van, in the same plaza as Sunflower. I enjoy the Banh Mi at Elizabeth Street Cafe. I'm looking forward to trying Saigon Food Truck on Airport soon. Want to join me there tonight?

  8. Great post! I need to explore more places for Vietnamese and this has inspired me to do so. As for the comment by "Anonymous", I find any commenter who won't identify themselves, to be not credible, and not at all helpful to the discourse.

  9. Love the info on Pho. I'll need to check out Pho Dan now.

  10. Thanks for letting me weigh in and giving me an excuse to the newer places outside of Pho Dan!

  11. Sea Dragon has wonderful seafood dishes! I have never had a bad meal here.

  12. There is no pho to be had in my rural community, but I'm not above calling for an Austin delivery via the husband when I have the craving, or am feeling a little 'off my game', for which pho is often the culinary cure. Pho Thaison was my first love and I truly appreciate HEA Cafe since it's walking distance from St. Ed's. This post is very informative, and I thank you for a few new ideas, too!

  13. i loooove the bun at Hai Ky. I got the bun at Yaya's once but it was so unlike any other bun i've had before (noodle-wise)that i don't think i will ever go back. tam's has great banh mi but if you want a tofu version, go to bite me on the drag. super delish!


  14. Wow. That made my mouth water!!!!

  15. I head they have a really good vegan pho which is never very good in Austin. I love Sunflower too!

  16. The pictures look pretty but all the food seem standard Vietnamese food that people in America knows of.

    Bun is not soup-less version of pho. Pho and bun refers to the two type of noddle. Pho is flat, while Bun is circular. There's are soupy bun, like Bun Bo Hue (the soup that is preferred over Pho by most Vietnamese).

  17. I am now looking forward to trying more Vietnamese food in Austin, besides bahn mi and pho! Thanks for opening people's eyes to the other Vietnamese possibilities!

  18. What do you think about Elizabeth Street Cafe pho?

    1. Hi Rad! Thanks for stopping by. I have not tried Elizabeth Street's pho, though I've been there a couple of times. Should I add it to my "to try" list?


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