PHO 95, 785-H ROCKVILLE PIKE, ROCKVILLE. 301-294-9391. Open: Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. MC, V. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $3.25 to $7.95, entrees $4.25 to $19. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $13 to $23 per person.
SAIGON GOURMET, 1326 E. GUDE DR., ROCKVILLE. 301-309-0444. Open: daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. MC, V. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $1.50 to $7.95, entrees $4.25 to $18.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $13 to $23 per person.
Poor Washington. Our city suffered a deprived childhood back in the days when old-fashioned ethnic neighborhoods were flourishing in places like New York and Baltimore. Without our own Little Italy or Greektown, we missed out on the kind of home-style European restaurants that came naturally to other East Coast cities. To this day, we still can't manage a decent pastrami sandwich. And the knishes? Don't ask.
But times (and immigration patterns) have changed. A hundred or so years after the European wave, Washington is abloom with newcomers from Southeast Asia, teasing our taste buds with lemon grass and cilantro instead of oregano and caraway. And this welcome invasion isn't happening with just a few big-name restaurants. Little neighborhood Vietnamese and Thai places have been springing up all over the Washington suburbs, a sure sign that the beachhead is secured.
Pho 95 and Saigon Gourmet are unpretentious Vietnamese eateries, each tucked away in a faceless shopping strip. They bill themselves as pho places, but don't be fooled by this false modesty -- each menu features more than a hundred items. Although neither restaurant is likely to win any prizes, each offers a wide selection of traditional dishes, a few of them very good. As in most neighborhood restaurants, you have to pick your way through the menu and tease out what the house does best. And remember that in restaurants of this kind you can't necessarily expect professional service; your server may be the cook's teenage daughter, finishing her homework between the courses of your dinner. In fact, any kind of crowd tends to throw these restaurants into panic mode, so it's best to visit during off hours.
Pho 95, a five-year-old restaurant with a new chef and an expanded menu, is a plain but serviceable place, its walls covered floor to ceiling with ceramic tile. (You can just imagine what that does to the acoustics.) In addition to the good pho, with its rich, beefy broth and five-spice fragrance, this place has a few memorable dishes. The "gourmet style rice in clay pot" tastes as though each grain had been lightly coated with butter, giving the dish an irresistibly silky richness. With its morsels of tender chicken and mushrooms, and with enough ginger for zip, this one's a real treat. There is more succulent chicken in the curry, its sauce a provocative blend of coconut milk, sesame seed and ginger, and its long-simmered chunks of potato serving as little sponges for all those glorious flavors.
The omelette-like country pancake, filled with pork, shrimp and sprouts, has been exquisite. Reminiscent of a fine Italian frittata, it is thin, crisp-edged and remarkably grease-free. Pho 95 achieves a perfect balance between sweet, hot and tart flavors in the familiar South Vietnamese "sour" soups, in which fish or shrimp sparkle in a seductive setting of fresh pineapple and tomato. There's also fine balance in the caramel fish and shrimp. Far too sweet in many restaurants, they're spiked at Pho 95 with enough hot pepper to give them some spunk.
It's also possible to have a truly disappointing meal here. The "pan-fried" chicken entree is nothing more than tasteless wok-cooked chicken morsels. Other main-course washouts include the tough, dry Vietnamese steak, the oily fried rice, the dry roasted quail and the flat-tasting chicken pho.
Except for the excellent spring rolls, you can sidestep most of the appetizers, too. The meat in both the stuffed grape leaves and the pork rolls is dry, and the barbecued pork on skewers has a hamburger-like texture. The "special Vietnamese salad," mainly iceberg lettuce, is a waste of money at $7.95.
Saigon Gourmet, which has a cozier, less institutional look than Pho 95, is a family affair, with Mom in the kitchen and Sis waiting tables. In some ways, the two places have opposite strengths and weaknesses. For example, where Pho 95's appetizers and salads tend to be poor, Saigon Gourmet's are outstanding. The pork rolls here are filled with juicy, tender meat, and the grilled lemon grass pork is superb, with just the right hint of charring. The grilled shrimp, though, have been a bit dry. Spring rolls are crisp, loaded with meat, and nearly oil-free. Saigon Gourmet fries quail until it is crisp on the surface but still moist inside, and lightly sautes the fresh-tasting soft-shell crabs (also available as an entree). In its beef in grape leaves, this kitchen gives rough-textured, juicy meat a flavor that's simultaneously peppery and citrusy.
The various Vietnamese salads are high points at Saigon Gourmet. The best of them is the refreshing, clean-tasting squid salad, which will remind you of a good ceviche. Like Pho 95, Saigon Gourmet serves a creditable pho, including a rich, soothing chicken version that has a down-home Western taste despite its Asian seasoning. And like Pho 95, it makes "sour" soups special. In fact, there are 18 non-pho soups, and we haven't tried one we didn't like. The spicy beef and pork soup is pepper-hot and meaty -- allergy sufferers, this is the most delicious decongestant you'll ever use. For something milder, go for the roast duck and mushroom soup, with a lovely anise fragrance and a generous handful of shii-take mushrooms. The fried rice here is exceptional, like a fluffy pilaf. And the "shaky beef" will give you a satisfying red-meat experience. Marination lends it tenderness and lively flavor, and quick searing yields a crusty surface.
Items to avoid include the caramel fish, the caramel shrimp and the pan-fried noodle dishes, which are all far too sweet. It's Sugarland Express with the soft, textureless spareribs, too. The chicken curry, with only a few pieces of very bony chicken, is likely to leave you hungry. The Vietnamese pancake is reasonably light, but it doesn't hold a candle to the one at Pho 95.
Are these two places unique? Not at all. You'll find lots more of them all across the Washington area -- restaurants where a new wave of immigrants is adding vibrancy and zest to what we eat. So eat your heart out, Baltimore.
Mark and Gail Barnett are freelance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on vacation.
CAPTION: Xuan Lai, daughter of the owner, with Saigon Gourmet's squid salad.