The best pho has traditionally been found simmering away inside strip-mall storefronts, adding its sweet, husky perfume to fluorescent spaces that have all the charm of a black-ops interrogation room. The dining room at Pho & Rolls looks more like an art gallery, or an art gallery tucked inside a small industrial warehouse, with tightly cropped images of limes, star anise and other ingredients affixed to walls the color of avocado and yellow corn.
The music floating above me is Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” followed by that dorm-room toker masterpiece, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd, parts one through five only (I believe). I can only imagine what the bar-stool pigeons two doors down at the testosterone-dripping Buffalo Wild Wings would make of the rarefied ambiance here. Come to think, I’m still processing my own feelings about the cultural mashup inside Pho & Rolls at Rockville Town Square, the suburban Mayberry that can’t help but defang almost everything that enters its borders.
Bea Eng, daughter of a retired Vietnamese chef and restaurateur, opted to try her hand at feeding the public when her real estate business started to sour. Eng’s decision to open in Rockville Town Square was no grand statement about pho and banh mi sandwiches, those dirt-cheap Vietnamese staples usually sold in more economical Zip codes, but a practical solution to a parental problem: She wanted a space near Richard Montgomery High School, where three of her children are enrolled. She can run Pho & Rolls and see her kids daily.
Still, I can’t help but wonder about Eng’s elegant eatery. It strikes me as pho’s move squarely into the suburban mainstream: a Vietnamese cheap-eats joint located cheek by jowl to other so-called ethnic eateries that already have made the transition (sushi, Thai, Middle Eastern) and to some pillars of American suburbia (Gold’s Gym, Starbucks, Hair Cuttery). Eng’s operation seems markedly different from places like Pho DC in Chinatown and Hanoi House on the U Street corridor, which cater to a built-in audience of tourists and/or gastronomic thrill-seekers. Eng has to appease a tougher crowd: soccer moms and dads on a budget.
As you might suspect, Pho & Rolls has had to make accommodations. In the year since the shop opened last May, Eng has had to re-engineer her nuoc mam condiment to downplay the sweet, pungent decay of the fish sauce. To her credit, even with the addition of cooked onions for extra sweetness, Eng’s nuoc mam still dials up enough umami fishiness to provide the necessary flavor boost to her line of rolls, which, if you’ll recall, get equal billing in the title.
My favorite is one that Eng labels bo dun, and it’s not a roll in the sense that a handful of ingredients are mummified in fresh or fried wrappers. Rather, bo dun is a family beef recipe that dates back to now-defunct Nam’s, the Wheaton restaurant that Eng’s mother founded. (Quote from The Post’s 1990 review: “Nam’s is a jewel in a tarnished setting.”) Bo dun are marinated strips of rib-eye wrapped around soft onions, then grilled and sprinkled with scallions and crushed peanuts. Eng calls the rolls “beer food.” The critics in 1990 called them “outstanding.” I call them the mother of all steak-and-onion combos, from bistec encebollado to lomo saltado.
The rest of Eng’s rolls suffer by comparison, which is not a slam. The lumpy loglike lemon grass pork rolls arrive on a rectangular white plate looking as if the rice paper had been shrink-wrapped around the ingredients; its big, meaty grill flavor is expertly counterbalanced by the cooling Thai basil and crunchy strips of cucumber and daikon. The only miss is the summer roll, overstuffed with greens and wrapped with a thick gummy sheet of rice paper, then served with an oddly thin peanut sauce.
Though not given marquee status, banh mi sandwiches take up a sizable chunk of the menu. The mini-baguettes that Eng buys have a tendency to stifle the fillings, particularly when the dry, flaky rolls have too much age on them. Still, with that bread caveat in mind, I would not dismiss the banh mi here; Eng knows how to layer flavors and textures, notably with her vegetarian sandwich, which comes stuffed with lemongrass- and curry-seasoned tofu surrounded by various spicy and pickled garnishes. It’s the kind of health-conscious pandering that I can endorse.
But you want to know about the pho, right? Eng learned to develop beef broth from her mom, relying on bone marrow, brisket and the slow sweep of time to tease out the deep, sweet flavors in her pho. When I encounter an exquisitely crafted broth, I’m loath to doctor it with condiments, but I must admit that Eng’s pho leaned too sweet, requiring three small drops of Sriracha to restore harmony. The fresh pho noodles, so soft and supple on the tongue, proved an excellent vehicle for Eng’s broth.
At the risk of losing all credibility, I confess that I found Eng’s vegetarian pho more enticing, perhaps because the challenge is greater. Built from root vegetables, onions and plenty of aromatics, the sweet golden broth is loaded with tofu and even more garden-fresh produce. The broth has an almost flawless beauty, which makes me wonder if the suburban mainstream and its healthful-eating agenda doesn’t demand more creativity than previously thought.
33-E Maryland Ave., Rockville.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5 to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $5.50-$13.