Arguably, some of the county’s best Asian dining can be found near the intersection of South Public Road and South Boulder Road in Lafayette. Further evidence for this increasingly solid proposition comes in the form of the Pho Cafe, another affordable strip mall spot. Like many pho restaurants nowadays, this humble spot has diversified its portfolio beyond beef noodle soup. But for my purposes on this cold day, I intended to bypass enticing rice and noodle plates as well as Thai-inflected entrees for a lunch of this eatery’s namesake specialty.
Given the weather, I ordered a hot $3.50 Vietnamese coffee to combat the chill. This beverage adhered to traditional presentation with a metal coffee press dripping dark roast brew into a glass with a hit of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom. After the coffee finished brewing, I poured the syrupy mix into a mug of hot water. In retrospect, I should have reduced the amount of hot water. The java was more diluted than I would have liked, and it was my own darn fault. However, the deep chocolatey tones of the coffee shone through, and to its credit, this restorative beverage wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.
A $4.95 pair of shrimp spring rolls were larger than expected. The stuffing was a touch heavy on the noodles, and the flavor could have been perked up with fresh basil. However, the featured shellfish was meaty and fresh tasting, and the rice paper wrapping’s silky texture indicated this starter had been freshly assembled. Less enjoyable versions are prepared too far in advance, and are characterized by an unpleasant rubbery exterior.
True pho aficionados understand there’s a touch of low-grade ritual leading up to their enjoyment of their soup. First, a server brings a small paper sack containing utensils, in this instance the expected chopsticks, as well as a fork for those less practiced with the Asian implement. Next up is the platter of garnishes, and the quality and quantity of this plate often foreshadows the quality of the soup itself. Happily, this was a decent pile of crisp bean sprouts, juicy lime wedges, fiery jalapeņo slices and fragrant basil.
The main event, a $7.25 medium bowl of pho sac biet, arrived swiftly, freighted with a beefy smorgasbord of rare steak, well-done flank, tendon, meatball and tripe. The thin steak had a slightly pinkish cast, indicating that the meat had been properly slipped into the steaming broth moments before serving. I didn’t detect much tripe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the tendon darn near melted in the mouth.
For many, the true measure of a pho’s quality lies in the broth. Although this version lacked the depth of what you’d find in a top-notch Bay Area Vietnamese joint, it still should satisfy most soup cravings. The balance of seasonings was right, with hints of star anise, onion and not too much salt.
Additionally, this soup was less greasy than others. I felt the broth’s relative lightness was evidence of the chef ’s legitimate decision to make a healthier soup than indicative of someone in the kitchen who didn’t know how pho should taste. While it might not serve the exact soup found in an urban ethnic enclave, Pho Cafe’s namesake dish could be the county’s best at a properly affordable price.
Pho Cafe is located at 1085 South Public Road in Lafayette. Call 303-665-0666.