The $20 Diner: Pho Bar and Grill’s tale of two kitchens

(Amanda Voisard/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Combo Pho, slices of round eye steak, meatballs, brisket and soft tendon, seen at Pho Bar and Grill on Friday, June 28, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

(Amanda Voisard/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Combo Pho, slices of round eye steak, meatballs, brisket and soft tendon, seen at Pho Bar and Grill on Friday, June 28, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

As soon as I spotted the vegetables on my lemon grass chicken salad, I knew something was amiss at Pho Bar and Grill. The carrot and cucumber garnishes, with these crooked and completely random notches cut into their flesh, looked like the results of a junior-high class project on Vietnamese vegetable carving.

The veggies looked nothing like the meticulously fabricated ones that had graced my earlier plates at this H Street NE restaurant, such as the length of cucumber cut to resemble a tiny king’s crown or the carrot coins carved into little circular-saw blades. Peripheral characters though they are, these sculpted garnishes were calling cards from the kitchen, designed to impress upon me that a real pro was toiling away for my pleasure. The poor, hacked-up specimens on my chicken salad, by contrast, were just spitballs aimed at the back of my neck.

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Only when I talked to a manager did I confirm my suspicion: Chef Tam Trin was on vacation during two of my visits to Pho Bar and Grill. The affable manager made the case that the chef’s absence has no effect on the kitchen’s performance, but I was not about to wash down those misbegotten veggies with her tall glass of Kool-Aid. More to the point, I don’t think you should, either. Call ahead to confirm Trin will be leading the kitchen or you might find yourself muttering the same dark thought I did on my last visit: amateur hour.

AWOL chefs is a subject usually reserved for the celebrity set, those toques who hopscotch from one fabulous restaurant to the next, rarely lifting a saute pan to do any real cooking. They often don’t need to, either; a good celebrity chef has qualified underlings who practically absorb the boss’s DNA to better carry out their Zelig-like tasks. This act of gastronomic mimicry is harder to pull off at mom-and-pop operations, where the head chef may be seasoned, but the ancillary cooks are still raw.

It’s a theory that appeared to take mortal form during my trips to Pho Bar and Grill.

After my first meal, I was practically ready to pronounce this elegant little exposed-brick establishment an Atlas District sleeper, in large part because of Trin’s Vietnamese take on Buffalo wings, coyly called “Our Little Secret” wings. The bird parts are fried, then sauteed with fish sauce and honey before the dark, lacquered morsels arrive on a bed of lettuce. The char, fish sauce and caramelized honey team up to perform some voodoo ritual on your brain, leaving you powerless before the wings. You will eat the entire plate yourself.

The combination pho gave me plenty to chew over, too, and it wasn’t just the Hanoi-style garnish of raw onion slices, their crunchy texture proving more distraction than complement. No, I was engrossed by several components of the soup, like the meatballs, which typically remind me of rubber-band balls. These were softer, though still toothsome, and spiked with an herbal flavor that was always just out of mental reach. The beef broth was murkier than normal, too, its saltiness pronounced but not so assertive that it shouted down the sweeter, more aromatic flavors.

The grilled lemon grass chicken over vermicelli, by contrast, required all the mental focus of watching a rerun. The skewered chicken was blackened under layers of char and caramelized honey, which entombed the meat and its pungent ginger-and-garlic marinade like prehistoric critters trapped in amber. The fragrance of lemon grass danced over this sticky mass of fire and flesh, and I loved every bite that my tablemate afforded me.

Had my eating stopped there you might be booking a table now, yes? But summer has begun to tumble dry the District again, which makes it prime chef-vacation season. Poor timing for Pho Bar and Grill, but the confluence of chef’s departure and critic’s arrival made for some unhappy meals. Then again, dining dollars spent on the scrimmage team are the same as those spent on the Pro Bowlers.

It wasn’t just about the carved vegetables, either. Those were merely outward symptoms of an organism with deeper ailments. My fried-rice combination plate appeared bereft of proteins other than its charred scraps of pork, and, worse, the entire mound sported more oil than the sunbathers on Ipanema beach. The comic tragedy was complete when I was presented with a small bowl of oily hot sauce, presumably to pour atop the rice. I felt like a Texaco roughneck who had just been offered a mug of vegetable oil.

The steamed chicken dumplings, on the other hand, looked gorgeous with their colorful garnish of scallions, fried onions and sesame seeds, but the thick packages were gummy and lukewarm. The barbecued beef in my banh mi had dehydrated into ginger-flavored jerky and served on a roll as moisture-free as pork rinds. The aforementioned lemon grass chicken salad was a variation on the vermicelli preparation, the protein simply chopped up and dumped over wan iceberg lettuce.

Then there was the vegetarian pho packed with onions, broccoli, firm tofu, celery, carrots, baby corn and overcooked rice noodles far too thin and limp to ferry much flavor. Its broth was brook-water clear and tasted mostly of cabbage, free of any Vietnamese aromatics that define the soup. I figured it was a mistake until I learned later that the recipe calls for no spice at all.

This chef-absence theory may be more complicated than I thought.

Pho Bar and Grill

1360 H St. NE.
202-587-5200.

www.phobarandgrill.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to
10 p.m Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.
to 12 a.m. Thursday;
11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday-Saturday.

Nearest Metro station: Union Station, with a 1.4-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: Entrees, $6.95-$14.95.

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