Should you find yourself hopelessly lost for days in the parking lot of the Sugarland Crossing Shopping Center in Sterling, don't despair -- help is at least at hand for your ethnic food cravings.
There is a Wendy's and a Chick-fil-A -- not so ethnic -- but also a Persian market, an Afghan place, a Peruvian spot and the one we wandered into, Pho Vietnam. There you can get a host of Vietnamese specialties from a menu that covers several pages and also acts as a handy sun shade. More about that later.
This shopping center is on the south side of Route 7 at Dranesville Road near the Fairfax County border. It is formally known as Community Plaza, even though we haven't heard anyone call it that. It's the one with the clock tower, although the clock hasn't told the correct time in many moons.
Pho Vietnam is on the east side of the center, about as far from the clock tower as one can get without going into the adjacent Town Center mall. It's owned by Quang Huynh and Phiyen Nguyen, who are helped by relatives. The recipes are mostly family ones, which they are reluctant to divulge.
There is not a lot to distinguish the restaurant's front from several others in the center, but inside it is roomier than we had imagined. There are a couple dozen sturdy tables set up to handle small and large parties. The walls are adorned with prints in the Asian "floating island" style, and there is some greenery in the front of the restaurant.
We arrived in the early evening, a large enough party that half of us had to sit on the side of the table that faced squarely into the setting sun. But an inventive mind saw the solution in the large menus, and we propped a couple of them up against the shoulder-high windows. Instant shade.
Expect to spend some time looking through the menu. There are several varieties of pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, as well as rice and rice vermicelli, seafood, poultry, pork and beef selections, and some offerings for vegetarians.
Our first challenge was what to drink. We ran into Salty Lemonade and the Iced Salty Plum. Also Vietnamese coffee. Soy bean milk. Young coconut. What to do, what to do. Fruit shakes as well -- carrot, tomato, avocado.
Several ordered Asian beer, but we also sampled the lemonade and plum concoctions. They were as advertised -- the sweetened fruit flavors combined with significant amounts of salt, plus the darkened remnants of fruit at the bottom of the glass. It tasted odd but interesting to most of us, although there was one polite "I don't think it's for me." Plum, which some described as "puckery," was the favorite.
A bunch of appetizers followed. The spring rolls were warm and crunchy, contrasting with the cool and chewy fresh vegetable rolls. One could heat these up -- or anything, for that matter -- with something red that came out of a bottle at the table labeled Tuong Ot Sriracha. Hot sauce, in other words. There was also a peanut sauce with the vegetable rolls, which elevated them some.
The steamed dumplings were deemed ordinary and needed more spice to leaven the proceedings. The seaweed soup came across as a hearty concoction, and the grilled beef in grape leaves provoked mild dispute. Some didn't like the fact that the beef had a solid meatball consistency; others did. "It's nice to know you're eating something," said the "pro" faction.
Picking and choosing among the main dishes took a little time. Given the name of the restaurant, we deliberated among the various pho. There was general agreement on the one with slices of eye-of-round steak.
Another pho suggestion followed, this one with slices of brisket, flank steak, fat brisket, soft tendon and bible tripe. Ominous silence. Stony faces all around. Not too many felt all that good about tripe, the lining of a cow's stomach. But we got it anyway.
One in the party was quite pleased with the fact that the meat in both pho seemed slightly undercooked. The hot broth -- and it was hot -- would finish the job quickly, he said. It did, and it also meant that the meat had some tenderness left to it.
Honesty requires us to reveal that the pho with all the stuff, including the tripe, seemed to last the longest as it went around the table. In fact, some was left at the end -- a fair amount, really.
A plate full of basil leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeno peppers and limes arrived with the large bowls of pho. They could be incorporated in any amount in the pho, and several in our party praised the freshness of those ingredients.
The broth was flavorful and hearty, well complemented by a generous amount of noodles. Some thought there was a surprising sweetness to the one with the eye-of- round steak, and there wasn't much argument about which one was preferred.
The entree that disappeared the fastest was the grilled ginger chicken with rice vermicelli. There was significant and refreshing ginger in the sweet sauce, and the chicken was nicely tender. Good marks all around.
We also ordered beef stir-fried with sate and onion, which was billed as spicy. Not really. The brown sauce was bland, and out came the bottle of Tuong Ot Sriracha to help it along.
Finally, seafood with egg noodle. It came with green onion, fried onion, bean sprouts, lemon and jalapenos. There was some discussion about how much actual seafood -- mostly shrimp and scallops -- was in the dish. But the mild complaining came from those farther down the table, so gauging the plentifulness of the seafood seemed to depend on who got there first and may have given themselves generous helpings. Sort of like who gets to the toys first in the sandbox.
Dessert rolled around, and we passed on the deep-fried ice cream and opted for white peas pudding with coconut milk, pink jello in syrup and coconut milk, and corn pudding with coconut milk. We were collectively not so high on the white peas, which had a greenish tinge despite the name. Some were mashed, some where whole, but overall they came off as dry and a little pasty.
We may have run into what one suggested was a cultural divide concerning the jello, which came in stringlike strips and also seemed a little rubbery.
The corn pudding was ranked the best, with the overall consistency and sweetness of the concoction triumphing.
One of the party showed up quite late, so we invoked the penalty clause -- the pho with everything, including the tripe. "Not my favorite," she said diplomatically. And a carrot shake. She liked it, including the texture of the ground carrot.
In the end, most were taken with the wide variety of choices on the menu. If you're looking for a fitting coda, try this: "An interesting opportunity to try new things," said one in the party.
Pho Vietnam is in the Sugarland Crossing Shopping Center at Suite 124, 47100 Community Plaza in Sterling. Phone: 703-433-9476. Hours are 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers run from $2.95 to $6.95, pho from $5.55 (regular) to $6.15 (large), and entrees from $6.55 to $9.95.