Denizens of the Eighth Avenue South corridor have responded so favorably to having Love Peace and Pho Vietnamese restaurant in their ’hood — no more cross-town trips to the west side for a pho fix — that I’d be tempted to add another word to its name: Happiness.
Of course, that would be too much, but the happiness factor does loom large at this new eatery. On all my visits, tables were filled with contented diners, heads bent over great steamy bowls, slurping noodles and rich broth.
Complex, cloudy, slightly sweet and anise-scented, the rare beef pho is a wonder to eat. Few things could make a hungry person happier on an icy January day. Unless it’s a Fried Egg-Banh Mi, a crackly baguette with a pillowy interior, stuffed with marinated cucumbers, carrots, daikon, fresh herbs and three perfectly soft-fried eggs. Give it a dash of Sriracha, and take a bite: the yolk spills over the vegetables, the bread capturing every golden drop. With contrasts of warm and cool, savory and piquant, that sandwich is a happiness delivery package.
Homage to the ’70s
Thuong Vo and her brother Minh Nguyen opened Love Peace and Pho in the retail strip at Douglas Corner on Eighth, in the former Canery Antiques site. As children who immigrated to this country post-Vietnam War in 1975, they consider this venture an homage to that life-changing time. They have imbued the restaurant with groovy colors and vibe of the 70s. Songs of that generation — ranging from John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” — play over the sound system. Foremost, they’ve assembled a menu offering their family’s dishes: authentic South Vietnamese cuisine.
Despite its nod to the past, Love Peace and Pho is up to 21st century techno-speed. The place has free Wi-Fi, its sleek dining bar outfitted with USB chargers. And, with an array of vegetarian options, (including a pho and that remarkable Fried Egg Banh Mi) there’s more to suit today’s dining preferences.
Ah, the pho. With each brimming bowl comes a “green” platter to add to the broth — wedge of lime, sliced jalapeños, mung bean sprouts, cinnamon basil and a curious pile of long serrated leaves: culantro. Sometimes called spiny coriander, it is cousin to cilantro, with a similar, yet more pronounced flavor. Be sure to add some of each to your bowl. You’ll also find your table set with neatly labeled condiments: bottles of Sriracha and hoisin, cruets of soy, fish and chili sauces, to further personalize your pho (and any other dish) with more heat, savory-sweetness and pungency.
A study in contrasts
Beyond pho, there are plenty of other dishes you’ll want to try. Spring rolls are like fresh salads in a supple rice wrapper, delectable dunked in the peanut-hoisin sauce. Turmeric-colored rice flour crepes arrive warm and crisp, the vegetarian style tucked with firm tofu, Chinese broccoli, onion and bean sprouts. Cut and wrap a piece in a lettuce leaf, dip it into the sweet-sour sauce and enjoy.
The Lotus root salad is different and delicious. Lightly dressed in a vinaigrette enhanced with fish sauce, it sports fresh greens, herbs and veggies (lotus root pieces are crunchy and mildly sweet), slices of steamed shrimp and pork, and airy shrimp chips. There’s a scatter of crushed peanuts across the top. Our group shared a plate; it makes a refreshing bite between courses, if you like.
The House Special Bun, which layers lettuce, vermicelli, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon, grilled pork and shrimp, fresh herbs and chopped egg rolls, is another dish of contrasting elements. The interplay of hot and cool, sour and sweet, silken and crunchy, brings real satisfaction.
Entrees of note include lemongrass chicken (it zings with chili), salt and pepper fried shrimp, and bone-gnawing good grilled pork chops, which come with a dome of rice, fried egg and a tomato-cucumber garnish.
For all the good, the young restaurant shows a few needs for improvement. One concerns a dish that may simply be not be to the liking of Western palates. The shrimp-pork dumplings, made with cassava flour, had a rubbery, almost impenetrable texture rejected roundly at the table.
Other issues have to do with finesse and consistency in preparation. On one visit, the grilled pork spring roll, freshly filled with noodles, shredded lettuce, chive, mint and green apple, was superb, yet on another visit, the distinctive green apple was disappointingly absent from the wrap.
Another time, the banh mi had been filled with a hulking length of cucumber, the ungainly heft detracting from the enjoyment of the sandwich. These can be easily remedied.
When warmer weather arrives, you’ll want to indulge in the iced coffee made with Café du Monde beans and sweetened condensed milk. But for now, there’s ready contentment — happiness — in sharing a pot of hot jasmine tea.