At the tender age of 41, I finally stopped fighting and embraced the term “hipster.” Chunky glasses, love of vintage kitsch, obscure indie music, equally obscure indie film, Instagramming food, selfies, facial hair, Apple technology. I’m owning it. Granted, now that I own it, the hipsters will move on to something else. I guess we’re all going normcore. But until the lights officially go out on the party, there’s a little pho restaurant in Cary…but you probably haven’t heard of it.
…and it’s really a shame. Pho Vietnam’s not that much to look at on the outside. The building has seen happier, more well-maintained days. Parking doesn’t look like much (use the side lot, there are only four spots out front), and their placement on a blind curve means that you may need to make a U-turn to get to them because you’ll pass them the first time. But it’s worth it for the food.
I love good Vietnamese food. I first got hooked back in grad school, at the University of Central Florida. There’s a strip mall right outside the campus’ main gate, and in the strip mall is Miss Saigon. The name alone (remember, kids, this was the late 90s…it was still a hip reference then) brought me in to try the food. And soon, I was addicted to rice and vermicelli dishes, soups, and summer rolls.
…then the hipsters came along. When I saw Sriracha being referred to as “hipster catsup,” I knew there was an issue. Pho was the new cupcakes…as cupcakes were the new sliders…and sliders were the new….well, you get it. Then add in the Cary factor. For those not in the area, Cary, NC (an alleged acronym for Containment Area for Yankee Refugees) is the Raleigh area safe haven for over-educated, NPR-addled, Apple-addicted, super-special-snowflake WASPS. You can’t swing a meditating, yoga-posing vegan without hitting a Prius, wallpapered in bumper stickers that proclaim how wonderful and super-special they are.
So a pho restaurant in Cary just seemed like the perfect storm of self-important hipster WASPiness that tries my patience like a First Friday on the opening day of a Wes Anderson film. The first rule of anger management: avoid your triggers. But there are certain risks to be taken in the name of food…
I made a few visits over the course of the review. Ideally, it was to get a wide sampling of the menu…but really? I’m a glutton at heart. I love Vietnamese food. The food is good. This was my own perfect storm.
Service is solid and attentive. Each time I went there, I was tended to quickly. When I ordered takeaway, the person taking my order offered me water and a place to sit while I waited. When I went to dine in, I was seated quickly. Each time, I saw several Vietnamese people eating there. Minority test: passed.
On visit one, my first takeaway, I got an order of summer rolls and a pork sandwich. Summer rolls can be tricky. I’ve had them where the rice paper has been overmoistened. I’ve had them where the roll itself is over stuffed. I’ve had them where the roll is really just a container for rice vermicelli and a few shrimp. Pho Vietnam’s summer rolls go heavier on the lettuce, with a little rice vermicelli in the wrap, giving them a cool, fresh taste. Over the course of my visits (hey…I had to order them each time. Consistency, you know?), the sauce ranged from having too much hoisin to a perfect blend of peanut and hoisin.
The sandwich was a pleasant surprise: roast pork. The bread was tough and chewy, nice and crisp. The pork was well cooked and the vegetables were fresh. There was a sliver of jalapeno in the sandwich that added some nice heat. But while Vietnamese sandwiches taste good, they’re really not why most people go out for Vietnamese…
…so I went back for a vermicelli dish…and more summer rolls, my second takeaway. Chicken and lemongrass delivered in both portion and taste. The takeaway container was huge. The chicken was cooked well. The sauce wasn’t overwhelmed by either the lemongrass, the vegetables, or the chicken itself.
Finally, I had the chance to sit in the dining room. I’ve never had good luck with takeaway pho. It’s never ended well—always a huge mess. So when I decided to go back for pho, I wanted to try it in the dining room. As before, the service was fast. The tables had racks with sauces and spoons. The pho was exceptionally hot, so I put some leaves, sprouts, and sriracha in the bowl while I waited for it to cool. Even with the sriracha, the spice in the pho was pretty mellow. I guess that it’s a nice blank canvas to work with.
…and of course, there just had to be a table of Milennials on lunch break, gushing over the food as they instagrammed pictures on their iPhones. Somehow, it all felt right in a strange but stereotypical way.
I was really impressed with Pho Vietnam. Again, the exterior looks a bit run down and it’s easy to miss from the street, but it’s worth the trip out for the food and the service.