It's spring, and a diner's thoughts turn to fresh food. As our little part of the earth tips closer to the sun, we are no longer satisfied with winter's store of root vegetables, heavy simmered stews and wan tomatoes. The warm evenings and long light have awakened our hunger for tender young herbs and crisp, raw vegetables subjected to the subtlest of cooking methods. And we know of no gentler, no fresher cuisine than Vietnamese, with its spring rolls merely acquainted with hot water and generous greening of every dish with basil, mint and sprouts. Even that famous Vietnamese beef soup -- complex, heady pho -- is somehow light and fresh-tasting.
And so we ambled through the Penn Avenue arts district, past galleries and murals and buildings still awaiting salvation, to Pho Minh. Behind its woven-reed awning and painted window shade is a modest storefront dining room, accented with a few fans, bamboo plants and other assorted Asiana. The menu covers only a few categories -- pho, noodles, rice -- but options are sufficient to please a diverse crowd. We quickly negotiated a cross-section of dishes, sampling a bit of almost everything on offer.
Of course, spring rolls were a given, and Pho Minh's are the best in town. The translucent wrappers are light, with only a hint of chewiness, and the fresh fillings pack in the full range of textures, from crunchy carrot to tender noodles to delicately meaty crescents of shrimp. Leaves of basil and mint and matchsticks of pork complete the mélange of tastes and textures, and a dark, sweet, peanuty dipping sauce accentuates the blended flavors.
Sauces are key to Pho Minh's cuisine. We ordered five dishes, including a soup, and were served a half-dozen little cups of dressings ranging from thick and strong to clear and herbal. The grilled shrimp and beef appetizer -- two plump skewered shrimp wrapped in thin slices of well-seasoned steak -- came with a sauce reminiscent of Worcestershire, but the interplay between sweet surf and meaty turf stood on its own.
Tofu with curry lemon grass is available in an appetizer-size portion or over rice, as an entrée. Either way, it is delicious: soft, silken tofu sauteed in subtly pungent herbs, and served with a tangy lemongrass broth for dipping.
Angelique ordered a main dish of bun (vermicelli) with grilled shrimp and pork which we liked even better as leftovers the next day, when the flavors had melded more together. Good bun is defined by its diversity of fresh ingredients, dynamically ranging from grilled meats and seafood or fried spring rolls to tender noodles, aromatic herbs and crisp vegetables. Exceptional bun is distinguished by its clear, herbal sauce, which should be bright, light and flavorful but not overwhelming. Pho Minh's was a good bun with a rather quiet sauce.
When a restaurant takes its name after a dish, we not only feel compelled to order it, but do so with certain high expectations. Unfortunately, Pho Minh's pho was the only real letdown of the evening. Its ingredients -- noodles, vegetables, herbs, and flank steak plus rare round steak, cooked merely by being dropped in the hot beef broth before serving -- were all fresh and peaking with flavor, but the broth itself tasted weak and watery. Pho is famous for its long ingredient list and longer cooking time, so we wouldn't presume to try to identify the missing note; it just seemed to us that a certain depth and fullness of beefitude was absent, diminishing the full effect of an otherwise lively and satisfying soup.
Pho Minh is a member in good standing of Pittsburgh's ever-growing community of Southeast Asian restaurants. Some of its preparations are outstanding, and the tasteful but unpretentious surroundings are pleasant. However, Pho Minh's imperfect renditions of the pillars of Vietnamese cuisine left us hungry for more.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars