DON'T POOH-POOH THE PU PU: At Pho Republique, it's retro and good.
The first Pho Republique, in Central Square, had a French Colonial Vietnam concept that rubbed a raw nerve of this former protester. The food was also strictly Vietnamese, and it didn’t measure up to real Vietnamese-immigrant restaurants. A move, two chefs, and a concept change later, Pho Republique is now pan Asian-fusion with décor and food that sometimes nod to the Trader Vic/South Pacific school of ’50s nostalgia. Retro done right sits a lot better with me, and the refined fusion dishes here can be remarkable.
|Pho Republique | 617.262.0005 | 1415 Washington Street, Boston | Open Sun–Tues, 5:30 pm–Midnight; and Wed–Sat, 5:30 pm–12:30 am | AE, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking (at Sage), $16 | Sidewalk-level access|
Typical of these dishes is the eponymous pho ($13.50 with chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu; $18 with crispy duck; $14.95 combination). The traditional Vietnamese soup is based on a beef stock, though there is a chicken version with a lot of cinnamon. Pho Republique originally opened with an awkward beef-based pho, which they’ve since dropped, and an unconventional chicken-based version, since improved. The latter now has a wonderful balance of lemongrass with hints of anise and cinnamon, and it’s one of the best chicken soups in Boston. It’s close enough in style to the Vietnamese beef pho to work with some of the same mix-ins (bean sprouts, anise-scented Asian basil, Vietnamese hot chili sauce), and even to support the same thin slices of brisket found in the beef version. The traditional rice noodles are available, but we opted for Chinese-style egg noodles, and they were exquisite.
On the retro side, what’s more retro than a pu pu platter ($24.81)? This one tweaks appetizers of all origins. The pair of shumai ($8.50/à la carte) are Japanese-style seafood dumplings, with an additional green soybean at the center of each one. The four spareribs ($12.50/à la carte) look like the Chinese-American kind, but are candied, sweet, and irresistible. Three veggie “gyoza” potstickers ($8.30/à la carte) are deep-fried and fabulous. Hot rangoons ($8.50/à la carte) as a Chinese-American appetizer would be fried in wonton skins; these are done up as spring rolls and are as rich as blintzes. “Crispy sashimi tuna spring rolls” ($12.50/à la carte) mixes several ideas — think: California roll fried as an egg roll — though it falters because the rice isn’t flavored like sushi rice.
We also tried the fried calamari with two sauces ($10.59). The batter was close to tempura, which is a good move, and the platter was plumped up with foamy shrimp chips. The sauces were a Vietnamese fish sauce and a spicy mayonnaise — only in Boston.
Other than the pho, the most impressive entrée was tuna steak ($22.95), seared on the outside and sliced thin. The coating was sesame and something hot and spicy, yet the real thrill was the soy-mustard butter sauce underneath. Sometimes fusion is really great.