A few years ago, I'd visit Vietnam every week--when it had a small outpost on Grant Road.
It was the home of a Vietnamese man I had volunteered to tutor in English, helping him out with his Pima Community College assignments (which, by the way, were nearly spotless in grammar, usage and penmanship before I arrived).
He, his wife, their kids and a grandfather were among the Vietnamese refugees who had resettled here around 1990 or so. The father of the household had been a civil engineer in Saigon, and an officer in the South Vietnamese army, which meant trouble once the North took over. In Tucson, he cleaned up other people's yards. His wife had owned a fashionable dress shop or two in Saigon; here, she sewed uniforms for the state-prison system. The kids were apparently doing great in high school and at the UA; the grandfather was less adaptable, but had transformed the front yard of their rented house into a fine vegetable garden.
Every Sunday morning upon my arrival, the exceptionally hospitable family would ply me with a series of little Vietnamese dishes, sometimes involving fish balls, many of them employing a light fish sauce. I didn't charge for my tutoring services, but the food was more than ample compensation. It kept coming, morsel by morsel, until I had the willpower to leave one last bit on the plate, the polite Asian signal that I'd had enough.
The portions are much larger at Saigon Phö, a restaurant that opened last spring in the new part of the Main Gate Square complex on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and University Boulevard. The restaurant doesn't face either of those streets; it's accessible through a passageway leading from University to a back parking lot. Perhaps because it's hidden away, few of the restaurant's 40 seats have been filled on any of my visits over the past few months, including dinner time on a recent Friday night.
Little about the décor sets this off as a Southeast Asian eatery, aside from the line of orange-paper lanterns hung above the counter, a couple of big vases and some pictures on the metallic-earth-toned walls. (For some reason, I also associate the ceiling fans with French-influenced Saigon, from movies; I've never been there.) You order from a list of about 40 numbered items at the counter; within a few minutes, your food is delivered to your table. If you ask for details about some of the items, you may find the employees' accents a bit thick--but better that than some dippy American student who doesn't know what he or she is talking about.
Phö is a rice-noodle soup, pronounced not like "foe," but more like the French word "feu," as in "pot-au-feu," the soup of leftovers that may or may not have inspired this Vietnamese signature dish. A generous heap of vermicelli (rice noodles) lounges in a gentle beef broth with your choice of other ingredients--slices of beef being the most common, but you can also get chicken, tripe, seafood or pork. I ordered No. 23, the beef rice-noodle soup ($7.99; to prevent havoc with our font set, I'll not mention most of the Vietnamese names). Besides the noodles and broth, the big bowl contained tender slices of beef, tiny bits of tripe (no, it's not gross, even if you're not an organ eater), rings of sweet onion and, according to the menu, meatballs, although I was hard-pressed to find them in my bowl.
The individual ingredients each have a neutral flavor; what makes the dish good are the broth itself--very slightly piquant--and the side offerings. There's a little side plate with bean sprouts for crunch (as long as you don't dump them all in at the beginning), a few slices of jalapeño for optional fire, and cilantro for a bright, fresh flavor burst. (I'd prefer the equally authentic Vietnamese basil, which is more common at Miss Saigon, just east of the UA.) A few drops of the red chile sauce from a table dispenser also adds a lot of life; other liquid additives at your disposal include hoisin and soy sauces.
The menu offers many things besides phö. No. 9, cà ri ($5.99), is a more modest portion of curry soup, involving green beans, carrots, tofu and red onions. The yellow curry is mild (by my standards); the accompanying, slightly sweet coconut-peanut sauce makes a vast, delicious difference. For starch, you can choose a Vietnamese baguette, vermicelli or a two-cup mound of steamed white rice.
No. 8, bún xaò ($7.99), is essentially a vegetable-noodle soup without the broth: a stir-fry of tofu, carrots, those little mushrooms that look like tiny untrimmed penises, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, broccoli and napa cabbage served over vermicelli. This one's a bit bland, even with the addition of the light garlic sauce served on the side.
More to my taste are No. 33, steamed rice with pork ($7.99), and the extravagant No. 36, steamed rice with assorted seafood ($14.99). The pork dish involves just about every Vietnamese variation on pig flesh there is: shredded, sliced and barbecued, rendered into sausage and sliced (it's a lot like pepperoni); the pork-roll innards are spongy but firm, not the salad-in-rice-paper you get with spring rolls. Again, few of these items have strong individual flavor profiles, but dip them into the slightly sweet garlic sauce on the side, and scoop up a bit of rice, and the result is wonderfully savory. A small cup of simple broth with onion and scallions arrives with the main fare.
The seafood-on-rice plate features shrimp, scallops (a half-dozen each), imitation crab, cuttlefish and assorted vegetables (cabbage, bok choy, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, broccoli and carrots). It's mild but tasty, and ought to appeal to people who don't like fishy flavors.
The menu features several vegetarian dishes, an assortment of baguettes (open-face sandwiches), a few desserts and some interesting beverages. Among the latter, try the wonderful, fruity-sweet taro smoothie ($3.50) or one of the teas ($2.50) with boba (tapioca balls) lurking at the bottom, which you slurp up through extra-wide straws.
Nothing here really reminds me of the home-cooked food I got from that Vietnamese family, but maybe it's the family that makes the biggest difference. As quick-service restaurants go, Saigon Phö is satisfying.