Location: 2120 Penn Ave., Strip District 412-281-7999
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Atmosphere: Tropical minimalism
Although the building at 2120 Penn has housed a succession of Vietnamese restaurants, the truth was that the food was often uninspired. But this fall with the arrival of a new tenant, Pho Van, the equation has changed.
The uptick in the quality of the restaurant was evident from the moment we stepped into the vestibule, whose plate-glass window is etched with a gestural image of a woman walking with a basket on her head. It's a sophisticated evocation of a distant place, followed by a more literal one in the dining room, where a section of faux thatched roof somehow doesn't read as kitschy. Perhaps that's because the rest of the big, bright room is simply decorated with pale (dare we say lemongrass?) yellow-green paint accented by a few arty photos of Vietnamese villages and markets.
While Pho Van's décor is subtle, its menu boldly expands Pittsburgh's growing wealth of Vietnamese choices. A case in point was a plate of dumplings unlike any we've had before. In lieu of thin wheat dough, Pho Van's dumplings are contained by a thick, translucent wrapper that we presume is made from glutinous rice. It's the kind of texture that's common in Asia yet a little too challenging to make an easy leap to American palates. The jelly-like wrapper had little flavor of its own, but it picked up the sweetness of the clear dipping sauce nicely and offered tasty morsels of firm shrimp and seasoned pork within. We liked that the dumplings were served on a banana leaf, too. Such small touches can go a long way toward convincing us -- rightly or not -- of food's authenticity.
Pho heads up the restaurant's name, but it also dubs itself a "Vietnamese Grill," so we tried representatives of both styles of cooking. From the grill, we had our choice of pork chops, beef, chicken, prawns or cross-cut short ribs. We chose the last, a beefy, tender cut with a row of disks that were the ribs. The meat was marinated, or perhaps just basted, in a mostly savory sauce that served primarily to up the beefy flavor.
Believed to be derived from the French beef stew pot au feu -- hence the name, pronounced "fuh" -- pho is the quintessential Vietnamese restaurant meal. But for all the paeans to pho that we've read, we've seldom had a truly transcendent bowl. Pho Van's from-scratch beef stock avoids the greasiness of some pho broths, instead offering a clear soup with a clean, mildly meaty flavor. Although lacking the heady, aromatic flavor we long for in pho, this made a lightly savory medium for the soup's rice noodles, three cuts of beef and a traditional assortment of fresh additions such as crunchy bean sprouts, spicy jalapeño, herbal Asian basil and tangy lime wedges. We very much enjoyed the trio of meats, clearly labeled on the menu as rare eye of round, flank and well-done brisket. The former was rosy and delicate like carpaccio, while the latter two cuts were thick, beefy slices that nevertheless melted on the tongue.
If the pho was competent, the rice noodle bowl topped with mixed grill was superb. The noodles were thin and agreeably chewy, topped with fresh vegetables and herbs as well as strips of charred, grilled pork, crisp spring roll and ground shrimp packed around sugar cane. Best of all were perfectly tender-crisp baby bok choy: The crunch in their stalks stood up to the hearty meats, while the leaves rounded out the dish's complex flavor. The homemade chili-garlic sauce tasted too much like the dumpling dipping sauce repurposed, however; with just the shrimp, which was mild almost to a fault, it might have worked, but it didn't seem up to flavoring such a bold assortment of ingredients.
The triumph of the night was a salad composed of beef "jerky" over shredded green papaya, topped with crushed peanuts and a healthy handful of mint. The paper-thin strips of dried beef had the chewy-crisp texture of perfectly cooked bacon and an intense, salty-savory flavor which contrasted with the bright, not-too-sweet papaya, earthy nuts and peppery mint.
With its refreshingly minimalist interior and a menu that blends Vietnamese classics with dishes unique in Pittsburgh, Pho Van breathes new life into a previously stale location.