Pho Viet - Columbia, SC (with a quick and dirty primer to Vietnamese cuisine)

Pho Viet, on Decker Blvd. in the Northeastern area of Columbia, is quite possibly my favorite restaurant in all of Columbia. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but it is without a doubt the restaurant we eat at almost every week, without fail. It offers the best Vietnamese food in these parts (but, considering there isn't any competition around, that really doesn't say that much), and, IMHO, considering all the Asian cuisine in general around here (lumping together Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese), it is probably the most authentic and accurate of all the Asian restaurants in Columbia in terms of the flavors and menu offerings.

For me, Pho Viet = comfort food. It reminds me of the kind of flavors I used to enjoy when I lived back in Los Angeles - while Pho Viet would be an average Vietnamese restaurant back in Los Angeles, here, it is exceptional for the area. I have been going here since I moved, back when the menu was tiny (only about 15 dishes total), but since January 2009, they renovated the restaurant and now offer a gigantic menu of Vietnamese dishes to choose from. I may sound like a shill for the restaurant, but I just really, really like their food a lot, and definitely recommend that you try the food there at least once.

Because Vietnamese food may be something new to some of you around here, I am going to provide a bit more detail for this post than I normally do as sort of a quick and dirty primer to eating basic Vietnamese cuisine. Here are some of the dishes that Pho Viet offers, and that we usually eat when we go there:

This appetizer is probably familiar to everyone: egg rolls. But, I like the egg rolls here better than anything else in the area, because they are made like they are supposed to be - smaller, with a thinner wrapping than the gargantuan American-style egg rolls that are so popular around here.

My favorite appetizer at Pho Viet is a variation on the egg roll - shrimp rolls. They take a piece of shrimp and some green onion, wrap it in the egg roll wrapping, and fry it up like an egg roll, but it comes out much more savory and delicious. I especially enjoy the contrast in texture between the crispy egg roll skin and the shrimp.

The orange and white vegetables on the left are pickled carrots and daikon that are thinly sliced, and serve as a slightly sweet counterpoint to the shrimp rolls (also offered with the egg rolls and other dishes).

At the top of the photo is a small bowl of Vietnamese fish sauce. Fish sauce is used as a dipping/flavoring sauce in a lot of different Vietnamese dishes. It is unlike anything else you've ever tasted, so I can't really describe it if you've never tasted it, but I can tell you how it is made (the more finicky eaters of you scroll down to the next photo right now so you don't have to read the next couple of sentences): it literally is a sauce made out of fish - the fish (usually anchovy, sometimes other fish), is fermented, salted, and then slowly pressed. The residual liquid is a pretty strong flavor, and is the basis of Vietnamese fish sauce. You can buy it in its "raw" form at most Asian supermarkets, but when it is served at restaurants, it is diluted and combined with other ingredients, including some chili paste, for the dipping/flavoring sauce that you see above. I personally love the flavor of fish sauce - it is a little bit sweet, salty, spicy, and a bit pungent all at once. It may be something that you have to try a couple of times first to get accustomed to.

Pho Viet at heart is a pho restaurant, as the name clearly implies. Pho refers to a type of Vietnamese noodle soup that is probably one of the staples of Vietnamese cuisine. The soup is made from beef bones and other ingredients that are cooked for a long time, and a good soup broth can make or break a pho dish. I have heard that the soup broth at Pho Viet isn't quite as good as it was before, but I can't confirm that, because we don't usually eat the pho here, not because it isn't good, but because there are other favorite dishes we have.

The pho dish is composed of a couple different things: the soup base, white rice noodles, and the meat that is served with the dish (usually thin slices of beef sirloin, beef tendon, beef tripe, or other pieces of beef that you can order). Like other pho places, Pho Viet offers a range of different pho that you can order in two different sizes - the small bowl, above, is usually enough for most people. The above photo is of a Pho with a type of vietnamese beef meatball.

Sometimes, there is nothing better than a bowl of pho - the soup is hot and comforting, the broth is flavorful, and for me, you can never complain about having beef as a food group. =)

Every pho bowl gets served with a side of vegetables - bean sprouts, fresh basil, and small slices of green chili - that you can use to put in your pho. Generally, the custom is to place in the basil and the bean sprouts (as much or little as you want), and put in the chili if they want it to be a bit spicier.
Lastly, for every pho dish, you can add in the two different sauces to your pho: on the left-hand side of the photo is a very popular type of chili paste, Sriracha that is pretty much ubiquitous here in the United States. You can purchase it in asian supermarkets, but beware of imitators - some nefarious manufacturers have made versions of the chili paste that look really similar, down to the rooster and the green bottle cap. You have to look for the one made by Huy Fong. It is a spicy chili paste - a small squirt or two will be more than enough spiciness for most people. On the right is another sauce, a type of hoisin sauce, which adds another dimension of flavor to the pho. Neither sauce is required for the pho - you can definitely enjoy the pho without either, or as much of the sauce as you want.

Another type of noodle soup that Pho Viet offers is an extremely spicy noodle soup called Hue-style spicy beef soup (Hue refers to one of the regions in Vietnam). For all you spicy lovers out there, this is the dish for you. This noodle soup is REALLY spicy - so spicy that we usually order it less spicy, because if you order it without any alterations, there is enough heat to burn you up and then some. It comes with slices of beef and beef tendon, pork belly, and onion.

My favorite dish in Vietnamese cuisine is bun (pronounced boon, like Daniel Boone, but without a long drawn out "oo". NOT bun, like a hamburger bun). Bun is a type of vermicelli rice noodle served in a bowl, along with shredded lettuce, thinly sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, and pickled carrot and daikon, along with whatever meat you order. As opposed to the pho above, bun is a dry dish without a soup broth. It also comes with a bowl of fish sauce, which you pour over the bun before mixing all the ingredients together to eat.

Pho Viet offers a lot of different bun dishes, but I would recommend two in particular: a bun made with beef rolls (thinly sliced beef, rolled up with thinly slices onions and then grilled), that is really delicious, or the grilled pork and egg roll bun that is shown above in the photo.

I love the pickled vegetables that come with bun, so I always order an extra bowl of it. =)

Next up is another Vietnamese dish - a vietnamese-style crepe. It is made out of rice flour, water, and either tumeric or coconut milk. At Pho Viet, I think they also add mung bean (which is a flavor I don't like very much). The crepe is filled with thin slices of pork and bean sprouts, then fried. It is served with some lettuce leaves, which you use to wrap up pieces of crepe, and then dunk it in the fish sauce.

For those of you that aren't feeling very adventurous, Pho Viet also offers your regular fried rice. =)
Lastly, for the vegetarians out there, Pho Viet also offers a decent amount of vegetarian options. This is one of our favorite dishes to order - a vegetable noodle soup that comes with tofu. We usually actually order it with a chicken broth instead of the vegetable broth, which destroys the vegetarian nature of the soup, but it comes out much more flavorful.

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