This self-effacing (self-debasing?) practice, I must admit, has grated on me for a while. It seems to imply that some will step inside a place only if the owners strip their business of any threatening Third World “otherness.” It’s the Uncle Tom shtick of the so-called ethnic restaurant industry. Or maybe I’m just overthinking this.
Regardless, Pho Nom Nom is an attractive, slightly artsy space, the latest from Vietnamese chef and owner Than Nguyen, who previously ran Pho Tay Ho in Baileys Crossroads. The place is typically packed with an eclectic mix of diners, whether a group of graying Anglos crammed around adjoining tables or a pair of young Latinos at a two-top. Whether by design or by taste, Pho Nom Nom draws a broad audience, even without a drop of alcohol available.
Part of the restaurant’s appeal is its menu, which ventures beyond the noodle soups found in so many Vietnamese parlors. Pho Nom Nom also serves rice or vermicelli dishes, a handful of house specials and 10 banh mi options. You have to request the customizable banh mi menu — more of a sushi-style checklist, really — which gives you some idea of the dish’s secondary importance here, a fact reflected in these passable, if underwhelming, sandwiches.
It’s just as well. Pho usually has a tractor-beam-like pull on me, particularly when winter’s air blast-freezes living tissue to the point where you start doing that stiff, zombie walk against arctic winds. Some dreary evenings, it seems that only pho, with its molten broth perfumed with star anise and charred ginger, can thaw my body into proper working order. At Pho Nom Nom, it can perform the trick without generating much complaint (more on that in a minute).
But the dish that caught my attention was another bowl altogether: a house special called bun bo Hue, or spicy noodle soup from Hue, a central Vietnamese city that Nguyen calls home. A relative of pho, bun bo Hue is the cousin that few like to talk about: a furtive little urchin, simultaneously pungent and greasy, attractive and repulsive. Built from a beef and pork broth scented with lemongrass and shrimp paste, the soup arrived with a layer of orangish, annatto seed-infused oil floating on top, BP style. The slick made for a rich, full-bodied spoonful; it also made me feel like I was slurping Sichuan oil straight, coating my lips with a gloss not available at your nearest Macy’s counter.
Arguably more successful was another house special, bo kho or Vietnamese beef stew, which was something of a misnomer. The thin liquid was more broth-like than stewy. As with the bun bo Hue, the bowl shimmered with annatto oil, although not with the threat to wildlife that the earlier soup suggested. Better yet, the stew’s bold, star anise-flavored broth concealed meaty slices of marinated steak, at once tender and pleasingly chewy. The special came with a crusty mini-baguette, available for sopping up liquid, a far better option than a spoon for those looking to avoid grease-stained lips.
My reactions to the house specials, I should note, vary slightly from my friend’s. Sylvie Nguyen-Fawley, who blogs under Thrifty D.C. Cook, has a more intimate relationship with these two dishes than I, by which I mean she has enjoyed them more than once. When we dined together in December, after my earlier visits, she approached the bowls from the point of view of a Vietnamese-American home cook who takes a hard line on sloppiness. She bemoaned the lack of lemongrass fragrance with each dish; she also added a nose-melting amount of shrimp paste and chili-garlic oil to the bun bo Hue to help it achieve an authentic level of pungency. (I loved her remedies — well, I did, once the oil provided some protection from the salty, fermented sucker-punch of the paste.)
“I feel I need to take you somewhere else,” she said with a sigh.
We found more common ground on Pho Nom Nom’s grilled bone-in pork chop on broken rice, served with an egg cake and more shredded pig meat. The chop’s deep grill flavor, intensified and augmented with pickled vegetables and a fish sauce-based dipping condiment, proved a perfect foil to the grains, which were cooked to a lush, ultra-soft consistency.
Sylvie and I even thought the pho managed to rise above the ordinary, its clear, medium-bodied broth ferrying a sweet cinnamon and star anise aroma, which helped chip away at the ice in my bones. We then proceeded to play a game of chicken with add-ons: She introduced me to hanh dam, or vinegared onions, which instantly created a stone wall of pungency. The broth’s other flavors wandered quickly past this vinegary wall like tourists looking for something more interesting to see. I then introduced Sylvie to the pleasures of melted fat spooned sparingly into the broth, which amplifies the beefiness while basically muting everything else.
There we were, two people whose ancestors came from different continents, teaching each other something about Vietnamese noodle soup. In a place called Pho Nom Nom. It seemed like the perfect setting.