Pho Horn is an enticing place from the outside, with colorful neon bowls sprouting chopsticks, and the proud declaration: Authentic Vietnamese Restaurant. Inside, the attempt is to mellow the appetite provoked by the signs, as the menu displays a boy playing a flute while he sits on a grazing water buffalo.
Clearly, pains have been taken to tweak the interest of non-Vietnamese diners in the Shaw’s shopping center location that used to house a defunct pho restaurant, called Golden Nime Chow. You know Americans have been accommodated: when you call for a reservation, the person announcing Pho Horn pronounces the first word “foe,” as fre-quently mispronounced by customers. (The traditional Vietnamese soup is pronounced, “Fuh.”) Health concerns are addressed by the menu declaring “Fast, Fresh & Healthy,” and “We cook with water, not oil.”
|Pho Horn | 401.365.6278 | 50 Ann Mary St, Pawtucket | Mon-Thurs, 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11 am-11 pm; Sun, 11 am-9 pm | Major credit cards | Beer + wine | Sidewalk-level accessible
Strictly speaking, this is not a pho shop, like the more than two-dozen in Boston that offer countless variations, since it offers much more — nearly 100 dishes.
Rhode Islanders still aren’t as accustomed to Vietnamese food as they are to Thai cuisine, not to mention Chinese. So bear in mind that although all of the offerings have Vietnamese names — some of them six words long and blooming with diacritical marks — all of the stir fried dishes are Chinese, and there is even a Korean dish here and there, not to mention Cambodian. (To prevent our tongues from getting cramps when ordering, all the items are numbered.)
The only disappointment among our samplings was such a Chinese dish, ga xao ca ry ($8.95), with announced although undetectable curry among a variety of nine vegetables, including snow peas and baby corn. The chicken was generous in amount but sliced cold-cut thin, rather than in juicy chunks, in a very non-Vietnamese thickened dark sauce.
Backing up a bit: I very much enjoyed our appetizer, scallion pancakes ($3.95), crisp triangles with a delicious dipping sauce heavy on the toasted sesame oil. We considered having the Vietnamese crepe ($8.25), which had been recommended, a mixture of shrimp and pork, plus bean sprouts and scallions, nicely sauced in a freshly made rice flour pancake. We’ll get it next time.
Read the vegetarian entrée descriptions carefully, because they sneak chicken broth into the noodle and tofu soup. Unusual for pho shops in our experience, from West Coast to East, a vegetarian option isn’t available with the 11 pho offerings.
Admittedly, the dish traditionally contains one or more varieties of beef and beef broth, to which one adds from plates of mung bean sprouts, basil leaves, and cilantro. There are chicken and seafood variations here, however.
A successful vegetarian dish we had was the canh chua dau hu, listed as an entrée but, like pho, a soup. It’s available in three sizes — $8.95, $9.95, and $11.95 — and medium was more than enough to share as a second starter. The mildly spicy-hot broth was rich without the help of chicken, and the fresh pineapple and tomato chunks brightened things considera-bly. The firm tofu was fried crisply enough to retain some bite.
I needed something more substantial, and bun thit nurong ($6.95) fit the bill. The sliced pork was grilled to a wonderful smokiness — beef tenderloin and chicken are other options — atop a bowl of rice vermicelli, topped with crushed peanuts, sprouts, cucumber and such, served with a sweet and vinegary “clear sauce.” It was delicious.
A second visit for a light meal pleasantly satisfied my curiosity about two items we’d considered the first time around. Of the varieties of Vietnamese fried rice, the one containing salted fish ($8.50) looked like the most interesting.
The pressed bits of brined tuna added little bursts of delicious saltiness. As well as egg, there were far more vegetables than in Chinese versions, from green beans and peas to corn ker-nels and carrots. Listed as one of the four “Horn’s Special” rural Vietnamese dishes, the Ca Hoac Thit Kho To ($10.95) was marvelous. Large chunks of salmon (we could have had catfish or pork) were clay pot-simmered with scallions and unidentifiable items, caramelized with sugar, and served with rice.
Vietnamese authenticity can especially be found with the dozen-and-a-half beverages, from sweetened soy bean milk to three varieties of limeade, one mellowed with jasmine tea. I half hope that the nuroc dura turoi description isn’t a typo: “Coconut Juice and Meat” — only $2.95. Imagining a refreshing purée of water buffalo is worth twice the price.
On the Web
Pho Horn: phohorns.com
Bill Rodriguez canbe reached firstname.lastname@example.org.