From the outside, Vina Pho & Grill has that anonymous, unappealing look so many non- Pearl Street located Boulder restaurants have: a plain tan box with a sign of some sort. It is the khaki of architecture.
The interior is decidedly more pleasant, with bright colors, clean lines, soft natural light and a nice planter box full of bamboo greenery. Leaving the noontime sizzle of 30th Street for that interior made it a double breath of fresh air.
The menu is as standard as the exterior architecture: pho and noodle bowls served with lime chili fish sauce (nuac cham). Par for the course, there are a wide variety of phos to choose from, the biggest differences between them being the cuts of meat. They are also available in small, medium and large sizes, and served with the standard dish of sprouts, hot peppers and limes on the side that seem to require an instruction manual.
My minced pork crispy spring rolls and beef noodle bowl was a decent entry in my Vietnamese food diary, with thinly sliced beef and a strong spice palate. But it didn’t stand out in any way. It practically could have been labeled “Vietnamese Food,” which, even when tasty, is a disappointing feeling to have with such a flavorful cuisine. Also, at $9.50 it was a bit expensive, but considering Vina doesn’t have separate lunch and dinner menus, and entrees edged up towards $14, that was the only real choice besides pho.
The pho is the other lower-end priceline on the menu, so I had a bowl of that as well.
Pho is one of those deeply complex, wildly subjective flavors that people will argue about the authenticity of until the sun gets so tired of the argument that it expands to the point that it consumes the Earth and all its pho just to get people to drop the issue. People defend their pho of choice against slander as if it were their own child. So, criticizing it is a minefield indeed.
That said, the broth with my brisket and rare steak bowl of pho was a bit bland. That’s it. All the pieces were there, they fit together, and it was satisfying but not wowing in any way, just a bit bland. Like a Tom Hanks romantic comedy.
But that was about the point that I realized the same couple of songs had been playing on repeat for the duration of my visit. The ultra-corny, synth-strings melodramas were starting to make me nuts, a feeling that only amplified over the 10 minutes it took to get the server’s attention to pay my bill, and the following 10 it took to get my receipt.
Considering that there were only four tables full at the time, that was a bewildering experience.
Boulder isn’t exactly known for its Vietnamese food. Few places outside of Vietnam truly are. But when you find your place, your stew, your pho-mate, it’s a wonderful thing. Vina Pho gave it a decent effort that may do it for some, but I’m going to keep looking.