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.
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.
Kim Phung's spring rolls
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.
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!