November in southern Minnesota this year has been relatively warm and mild. Until a couple of days ago, that is. It got cold last Friday and then today winter more or less arrived with freezing rain and snow. Ah, the first day of driving on slick roads! A more positive way of thinking about winter is to think of it as noodle soup season, and I have always believed in accentuating the positive. And so throughout the winter I am going to post brief reports of noodle soup-centered meals around the Twin Cities.
This will also mean a sharp uptick in my Vietnamese coverage. In case you’re wondering, Minnesota has a decent-sized Vietnamese population (26,000 at the last census) and most of them live in the Twin Cities. My guess, based on Vietnamese store-fronts, is that St. Paul is really the Vietnamese hub of the Twin Cities, but my “tour” will begin in Minneapolis, on the stretch of Nicollet Ave. known as Eat Street. First up: Pho 79.
Pho 79 is a long-standing and fairly popular establishment. It would be even more popular if it weren’t so difficult to park there. There’s a small parking lot alongside but it’s usually full and finding street parking is not easy. On every occasion we’ve gone we’ve had to drive around a bit. Of course, this doesn’t put people off—it was packed for weekday lunch. And if you can make it in, you can count on solid food at very reasonable prices.
First, however, you may be confused by the fact that the restaurant has a split identity. The sign outside lists both Pho 79 and Caravelle, the latter of which advertises Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine. When you enter, past the stairs that go up to establishments that offer accounting services, senior care and natural therapeutics, you will see that the interior too is split in two. On the right is the Caravelle space—this is where you go if you want to partake of a buffet of ye olde Chinese-American classics. To the left is Pho 79—this is where you will be shunted if you show no interest in the buffet (though you will be given a menu that encompasses both Pho 79 and Caravelle’s offerings). I cannot speak to the merits of the buffet. But I can vouch for the natural therapeutics of Pho 79’s noodle soups.
On this occasion the missus got the #10 pho (pho tai, nam, gan) which comes with rare beef and well done flank and tendon. I got the bun bo hue (which is listed in the “Hu Tieu + Mi” section of the menu). We split an order of chim cuc chien or deep-fried quail to start. There are many other noodle soups on the menu as well as a number of types of bun (rice noodle bowls). Though we didn’t get any on this occasion, their spring rolls etc. are solid. Some of their fish dishes—especially the catfish cooked in a claypot—also tempt us from time to time but somehow we never get past the noodle soups. If you have had these other dishes please report on their qualities.
So, how was the food? The quail was very nice. Very nicely fried to the perfect crisp. We made short work of it, dipping it into the accompanying seasoned salt. The pho was good but seemed to already have lime juice in it—at any rate it was more sour than your basic pho broth is supposed to be; fortunately, the missus tasted it before squeezing any more lime into it. I should also say that this is not the norm here. The meats were decent. My bun bo hue could have been spicier but was otherwise very good: the broth was sour and earthy and I really enjoyed the generous hunks of pork hock and the quite tasty meatball of pork and shrimp that were in there along with the rare beef.
Service is brusque but not unfriendly. The portions and prices are very friendly. We paid a little over $30 for all of this and were well stuffed. I won’t make very big claims for it; it was a quick meal that hit the spot on a cold day. We’ve had better pho in Minnesota but we’ve also had worse —despite the sour broth it was much better than the iterations in the southern suburbs (see here and here). Next up: Pho Hoa across the street!