Dishes entirely new to me, with ingredients I've never seen. Here. In Colorado Springs. This almost never happens. Consider the following a love letter to five-month-old Pho Saigon Grill.
Forget the bun and the pho. I didn't even try them here. So many other plates called for my attention.
Vietnamese fondue, for instance. I have yet to travel in Vietnam, where I'm told I will encounter whole fondue eateries, something akin to the hot-pot joints I recently witnessed in Shanghai. Best I can tell, those hot pots are more the progenitor of Vietnam's boiling cauldron of goodness than the later French influence that's gifted us bahn mi sandwiches.
Regardless, grab a partner or friends and go for the Banana Blossom Fire Pot ($28, feeds two; $38 feeds more), whose base of chicken broth derives its sour notes from tamarind and significant heat from Thai chilies, plus abundant floral and herb influence from lemongrass, basil, ginger and garlic. It arrives with a side of glass noodles, and over a portable gas sauté burner, in a big silver bowl that has a wide lip at the top. It acts as a shelf for squid, catfish, scallops, shrimp, mussels, fresh basil, jalapeños and new-to-me taro stems (from the same plant whose starchy root informs taro boba drinks), all of which you drop in and fish out as you please.
The whole affair gets its gorgeous design thanks to Jasmine Pham, wife of chef/owner Tom Pham and friendly face of the front of the house. While Tom and other chefs specialize in and contribute Chinese plates to the large menu, Jasmine's the one who handles prep for the true Vietnamese dishes. It's she who explains how tamarind must be used instead of lime juice, which bitters upon boiling, and she who concocts the fantastic fish sauce dressing for the salad menu.
After being blown away by the fresh, crisp, citrusy goodness that's the goi dac biet ($14.95) — shrimp, jellyfish, squid, pork, cabbage, cucumber and onion with garnishing peanuts and krupuk (prawn crackers, which I first fell in love with in Indonesia) — I had to return for the goi tom thit ($12.95). It introduced me to vinegary lotus roots (which chew woody, like asparagus) intermixed with pork, shrimp, carrots and cabbage, all bursting with flavor under Jasmine's sweet dressing, which includes sugar, orange and lime juice and garlic as inputs.
Her caramelized catfish ($10.95) sports tiny bones (watch out) but wonderfully balanced flavors again informed by fish sauce with black pepper and jalapeño kick and green and fried onion bite. Even the classic soda with yolk and condensed milk drink ($3.50; as is super-sweet lemonade and nutty coconut water) won me over here; I've never taken to it elsewhere.
Yes, if you stick to familiar territory like the crab rangoons ($4.95) or spring rolls ($3.95), and even the sweet and sour squid ($12.95, which proved too chewy, with tough, scored edges in a basic oyster sauce), you won't have any epiphanies at Pho Saigon Grill. So don't.
"When I want Thai food, I don't want cheese in it," jokes Jasmine as we discuss her push for authenticity. After learning to cook as a child, with "barely enough to survive" in Vietnam, she's come too far to put up with that. And so have many of us, in our own pursuits of purity. As far as how Pho Saigon Grill ranks in that realm, it strikes me as Jasmine's love letter to us.