You’ve got to admire a restaurant with as ambitious a name as Pho Paradise. Over recent years, pho shops have sprung up around Providence like bamboo after monsoon rains, so a sensible way of differentiating themselves is to brag like mad.
The décor of the place is pleasant and modest, however, with a turquoise neon “Welcome to Pho Paradise” sign looking over a few large uncovered Formica-topped tables and many smaller ones with glass over tablecloths.
No longer a half-page afterthought on a pan-Asian restaurant menu, Vietnamese food is now popular enough to warrant eight pages here (remember when Thai food in Rhode Island was exotic?). The state’s growing Vietnamese population has encouraged menu items that certainly are not catering to American tastes. A year after Pho Paradise’s opening, the presence among the appetizers of thu linh chien don (fried pork intestines) cannot be accounted for by displaced Southerners nostalgic for chitlins.
Perusing the menu reveals similar opportunities, as though you stepped in off a Saigon street. The influence of the French pops up in banh mi chien tom ($4.95), shrimp toast, which is French bread spread with shrimp paste. I like to imagine this as comfort food, bringing Vietnamese customers memories of their mothers pacifying them with the treat when they were impatient before supper. Most of the appetizers are $3.95 or less, with exceptions like roasted quail and shrimp paste baked on peeled sugar cane (each $8.95).
The namesake pho (pronounced “fuh”) is the rice noodle component of the deservedly celebrated Vietnamese soup of the same name and of myriad variations. At prices from $5.25 to $6.95, in four sizes, the top of the list is the catch-all version, xe lua, containing rare eye round, well-done brisket, flank steak, tripe, and an odd item there (and in many a Vietnamese sandwich) for texture rather than flavor: tendon. The soups come with side heaps of mung beans, cilantro, and Asian basil to toss in, and lime and jalapeños further bolster the broth. A Phnom Penh-style variation ends the pho list, containing seafood and pork.
Did anyone else discover their first nime chow at the late, great Pho Pasteur on Broad Street? It folded in the early ’90s, and those traditional summer rolls they offered contained not only shrimp, but also pork. I’ve rarely come across the combination since, until Pho Paradise. Called goi cuon here (nime chow is the Cambodian term for the Vietnamese treat), the accompanying peanut and sauce is thick, not the common version that’s thin with rice vinegar, which is better for sticking to the soft wrapper. Another appetizer we couldn’t pass up was scallion pancakes, crisp fried wedges sweet from the flour used.
Our last starter was at the top of the signature specials, which are all soups, but listed instead as specialties of rural Vietnam. The canh chua ($8.95-$11.95) is a spicy hot sweet and sour soup, deliciously full of pineapple and tomato chunks, bean sprouts, celery, and our choice of catfish instead of salmon or shrimp. Plenty of fish, plenty of vinegar-tanged, mildly fiery flavor. For $19.95 to $24.95, your party can cook beef and seafood in a “fire pot” of broth, placing the results, with vegetal and vermicelli accessorizing, into rice-sheet rolls of your own devising.