Pho Bac 54
5821 Charlotte Pike. 352-9399
Open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. every day but Wednesday.
Turkey sandwich, anyone? I didn’t think so. Ten daysand countless turkey sandwiches, bowls of turkey noodle soup and helpings of turkey tetrazziniafter Thanksgiving, I finally dumped the last of the leftover bird. The only thing left was a wing that had shriveled up so much that it looked like it had been unearthed in an architectural dig. I was so sick of turkey, I was ready to eat tempehand I’m not what you’d call a fan of soy-based products.
Instead, accompanied by a crew of similarly over-gobbled friends, I trotted out to Pho Bac 54, the newest member of the three Vietnamese restaurants located within blocks of one another on Charlotte Pike. Coming from White Bridge Rd., and turning left onto Charlotte, one reaches Pho Bac 54 first, on the left-hand side of the street; it shares a building with a rental center.
The other Vietnamese restaurants on this strip are within walking distance (that is, if Charlotte Pike were more amenable to pedestrians). On the left, 50 yards past Pho Bac 54, is the ascending drive that takes diners to Kien Giang, the first, most established and most popular Vietnamese restaurant in Nashville. In the same shopping center, on the other side of a huge storage facility, is Miss Saigon, which in the view of most local Vietnamese food aficionados does not offer nearly the same quality as its neighbor. According to insiders, there is also some type of simmering feud between the two restaurants. This past Saturday afternoon, it appeared that Kien Giang was the clear victor; there were people lined up outside the door waiting for a table, while at Miss Saigon only three of the 20 or so tables were occupied.
Now Pho Bac 54 enters the arena, and even if it’s not strong enough to knock Kien Giang from its position as King of the Hill, it’s certainly poised to be a contendera fine alternative if Kien Giang is overflowing with loyalists. The menus at both restaurants begin in similar fashion, starting off with spring rolls of either shredded pork or pork and shrimp with sprouts, shredded leaf lettuce, cilantro and basil tightly wrapped in rice paper. The rolls are served with a couple of dipping sauces, known in Vietnamese as nuoc cham; Pho Bac offers the sauces with and without chopped peanuts, a thoughtful nod to those deathly allergic to the legume.
Pho Bac 54’s banh xeorice-flour omelets filled with green onions, sprouts, shrimp and porkwere golden-crisped on the outside, full of goodies on the inside, not at all greasy, and certainly on par with Kien Giang’s version of this habit-forming Southeast Asian staple.
The restaurant’s name is a reference to the country’s national dish, pho, which means “one’s own bowl”; it is one of the few items in this cuisine not meant to be shared. A very time-consuming veal stock begins the best pho, to which are added rice noodles and some type of beef. (Some Vietnamese restaurants dally with seafood or poultry pho, but not this one.) There are 12 phos offered at Pho Bac 54 (compared to five at Kien Giang); most offer a beef combo like eye of round, flank and soft tendon, or eye of round and fat brisket. Each bowl is accompanied by garnishes of raw sprouts, peppers, herbs and flavoring sauces. The herbs and vegetables are added to the soup; the meat is taken from the soup with chopsticks and dipped in the sauces.
Eating pho can be a tricky, messy affair. We emulated the Vietnamese diners around us who used their chopsticks not only to extract the meat for dipping, but also to guide the sprouts from bowl to mouth, and to pull noodles up out of the bowl and place them in a spoon to cool. The large, ladle-type spoon is also used to slurp the soup. The broth was excellent, with a subtle, delicate flavor; the portions of beef were generous; and all of the herbs and vegetables were fresh.
In addition to pho, Pho Bac 54 has a few rice vermicelli dishes, some spicy stir-fries served with mounds of steamed white rice, and a list of daily specials, which may or may not be available when you visit, regardless of their posting. From the menu, we sampled the lemongrass-chili stir-fried chicken, and from the specials, we sampled the same treatment of squid. The flavorful sauceuntainted by the all-too-common addition of cornstarchhit the spot with a citrus-peppery blast. The squid tasted a little long in the toothKien Giang’s is always very freshbut the chicken was tender and moist. Also from the specials menu, the caramel fish served in a clay pot had a sweet-tangy sauce used to great advantage over the rice, but the fish was fatty and bony. Whitefish filets would make a good dish superb.
Fifteen beverages are available, though none are alcoholic. Indulge your caffeine cravings with a cup of the strong chicory coffee with sweet condensed milk, served hot or over ice. Or quench your thirst with chanh muoi, a sour-salty-sweet cold drink with large pieces of lemon pulp.
Pho Bac 54 is unembellishedpale walls and floors, Formica tables and restaurant-supply chairs make for a bland vista. But it is clean, and one side of the room is reserved for nonsmokersfairly unusual for Vietnamese restaurants, which are typically divided into smoking and chain-smoking sections. Prices are lowseven of us ate our fill for $65and there was nary a turkey wing in sight.
There are some aspects of my job that my children love: trying new foods, enjoying product samples that get delivered to me at the paper, taking their friends on restaurant reviews. This Saturday afternoon, however, I forced them to endure one of their least favorite things: cruising the streets of Nashville for new culinary outposts. They sit in the backseat, and as we drive down Nolensville Road or Gallatin Road, or through Cool Springs, they alert me each time they spot something promising from their side of the car. I should have a sticker on the rear bumper that warns: I brake for restaurants.
This weekend, we directed our search to the Charlotte Pike/White Bridge Road area. In addition to the three Vietnamese restaurants, we found an Asian seafood/produce market that will soon be opening in the location formerly occupied by New Saigon restaurant, at 6317 Charlotte Pike. At 6410 Charlotte, in the West Towne Plaza strip center, we found Café Korea, a small luncheonette-type room with about a dozen tables and a lengthy menu of Korean specialties. In the same center is Saigon Café, which offered us a unique peek into an unfamiliar Nashville subculture. When we opened the mirrored door, we were greeted with a thick cloud of cigarette smoke and a room full of Asian men drinking beer and shooting pool.
Nearly at the corner of Charlotte and White Bridge Road, our attention was drawn to the brightly painted plate glass windows of what is said to be Nashville’s only tamale factory. A small printed sign outside of the locked door requests customers knock for service. We did, and the man who answered allowed us into a front room that was unfurnished except for a couple of tall chairs and the desk where he was posted. The tamale factory is apparently located in the back, though we were not privy to a tour.
Tamales Casias sells corn-husk-wrapped tamales to restaurants and to individuals by the half-dozen or dozen. Pork tamales can be picked up on the spot ($5 for six, $10 for 12). If you prefer chicken tamales, call ahead to place the order ($6 for six, $12 for 12). Keep in mind that tamales are a traditional Mexican holiday food, so there may be a tamale run as we get closer to Christmas. Tamales Casias also sells barbacoa (stewed beef cheeks) by the half-pound or pound on Saturday and Sunday only. The store is at 5629 White Bridge Rd. Phone: 354-5678. Open 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Wed.-Fri.; 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. A taqueria stand is parked right next door. Open every day but Monday, it sells tacos ($1.50), tortas ($3.50) and hamburgers ($3.50).
Around the corner on White Bridge Road, directly across from Sprintz Furniture, we found La Espuela Latin Restaurant. La Espuela, tucked back from the road in a former bungalow, has been open only a couple of weeks, but it had already attracted enough customers to half-fill the front room of seven tables for a late lunch that afternoon. Though elements of the short menunachos, tacos and quesadillasare similar to what would be found at a Mexican restaurant, La Espuela calls Honduras its country of origin.
According to our waitress, Honduran food is less spicy than Mexican and relies more on grilled meats, perhaps owing to its closer proximity to South America (where such food is abundant). The Honduran enchiladas are served two to an order: two fried corn tortillas topped with ground beef, shredded cabbage, sliced hard-boiled egg and tomato, red sauce and parmesan cheese. Friday through Sunday, La Espuela’s calling card is specialty soups, including a remarkable, hearty crab soup with sausage. The entrée-sized portions are served with rice and tortillas. Beer is available, and there is a billiard table in the back room.
La Espuela is located at 336 White Bridge Rd. Phone: 353-4130. Call for hours.