Pho Tam

I’ve mentioned it once or twice over the past few weeks, but a Vietnamese eatery called Pho Tam has recently taken over the spot vacated by Chef Express just south of Golden Star on Orchard in Boise.  I have almost no experience with Vietnamese food other than the sandwiches and spring rolls at Baguette Deli (previous write-ups here), the only other Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever eaten at being the now defunct Saigon Grill.  So, I was excited about the prospect of a pho joint opening so close to my office and have driven by about three times a week hoping to see an “open” sign.  This week, it finally happened.

I never ate at this place when it was Chef Express, and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake again.  I have to admit that I was expecting a little hole in the wall place with little (if any) seating, but pho has never struck me as something that would make for good take-out, and given the sign advertising pho (specifically beef noodle) I was guessing that was the main thrust of the business.  Once through the door, I knew immediately that I had been wrong about the place itself.  Though furnished in a rather utilitarian style, there was still quite a bit of seating, and a glance at the menu above the counter showed several options including some Chinese fare.

At least I had been right about the limited menu, I thought to myself.  And while I thought over the 13 simple choices before me and marvelled at some of the prices ($6.50 for four egg rolls seems steep, especially since you can get them a few blocks up the street for eighty-five cents a pop, and don’t even get me started on crab rangoon at a buck a piece) when the woman at the counter pointed out to me that the sign I was contemplating was just the highlights.  She handed me a to-go menu that would ultimately result in my being late getting back to work due to the number of tantalizing and unfamiliar choices.

I was being tempted from all sides, but the way I saw it I was at a place named for pho and which should subsequently specialize in it.  Besides, I wanted to see how they would do it as a to-go dish.  If you don’t know anything about pho, check this out.  Or if you don’t have the interest or the patience to go study, I’ll just tell you that it’s an elaborate noodle soup consisting of a lot of ingredients, toppings, garnishes and sauces.  So, in the end I went with the pho ga, simply because my only previous experience had been a rather unpleasant beef one, and because the idea of Asian chicken noodle soup just sounded like comfort food to me.  And just because I’m such a fan of Baguette Deli’s, I added half an order of the egg rolls to my lunch so I could compare them.  While I waited for my food to come up, I alternated between watching CNN on the large, wall-mounted TV by the counter and talking to the woman who was running the front of the house.  I didn’t get her name, but her command of the English language is very good and she’s pretty passionate about what she’s doing.  For example, I asked about the lau seafood sour soup, which at just under twenty bucks is at least twice the price of anything else on the menu, and she told me excitedly about how she makes it for her kids all the time.  I’ve looked it up since then and found out it’s a hotpot dish, kind of like an Asian fondue.  When I asked what types of seafood are in it she seemed not to get the question, but it doesn’t matter much since my subsequent research turned up the words “spicy” and “squid” a number of times.  Eventually, my food was done.  I headed back to work and, from two plastic bags, laid out the following on my desk:

Pho to go!

Pretty interesting, no?  The idea of pho in restaurants is that they have all kinds of toppings and sauces available so you can completely customize the soup to your own liking, and in front of me was a miniature version of that.  Popping the top of the plastic bowl revealed a pile of noodles, chicken, onion, scallion and cilantro.  The tall white container held the soup broth, while the Ziploc bag contained sprouts, basil, sliced chilis and lime wedges.  There were also two small containers in there, one full of fish sauce for dipping the egg rolls in, the other hoisin and Sriracha sauces co-mingling but not mixed.  I tossed the lettuce leaves in the plastic wrap because I didn’t know what they were for.  Then I mixed in the broth and the vegetation in the Ziploc but a test bite showed a distinct lack of flavor, so I squeezed in the lime wedges and carefully extracted the hoisin from the sauce container to add to the bowl, and this helped but it was still lacking.  I realized that if I wanted this to be good, I was going to have to mix in the Sriracha, my fear of spicy foods be damned.  I didn’t feel like mixing a bit at a time and trying it over and over, so I just dumped it all in.  In the end, this is what my assembled lunch looked like:

Sorry, the restaurant doesn’t give out the nifty plastic chopsticks, those are mine.

Before I risked setting my mouth on fire, I decided to try the egg rolls.  I knew going into it that they were different than Baguette Deli’s for the price and the fact that they had been cooked when I ordered them rather than being held under a lamp.  That being said, Baguette Deli still has the better flavor, with a high concentration of veggies and noodles while these were mostly ground pork.  Dipping them in the fish sauce helped immensely though, so maybe that’s why it was included.  I might still have to try the grilled pork ones, I think that’s the type Baguette Deli makes, but Pho Tam didn’t have those available in a half order.

Back to the soup.  My only other pho experience had been at the aforementioned Saigon Grill.  I had been confused and unable to make the soup taste good.  Eventually I ended up ruining it with too much cilantro and Sriracha.  Still, Bourdain and just about every other Asian food freak loves the stuff, so I was determined to give it another chance, and Pho Tam didn’t disappoint.  The heat built slowly enough that I was able to acclamate, and between all the different ingredients no two bites tasted the same.  One minute it was all onion, the next basil, then chicken, cilantro, chili, and endless overlapping combinations.  I wanted to go on tasting that variety long after my system had forced me to stop shovelling it into my face.

They gave me two, so I opened two!

There are a lot of other things on that menu I want to try.  I can only hope they review their pricing structure down the line, because there are selections I will avoid at this point just because I know I can get them somewhere else considerably cheaper.  They also have the cheap banh mi sandwiches, which along with Baguette Deli and Chau’s makes three places I can get them and still be back to work on time.  I only hope that all of the places springing up to sell them are because the market demands it and can support all the options, because I really don’t want to lose any of them.  A good new restaurant always makes me happy.  If it’s Asian, that makes me even happier.  And when they’re open seven days a week, including being open until 2 AM on weekends like Pho Tam, that has the makings of an invaluable community resource. 

Pho Tam on Urbanspoon