Plates hot, waits not

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den For The New Mex­i­can

Food crit­ics don’t want restau­rants to fail. We like to eat good food. The way I see it, the sur­vival of a new res­tau­rant in town is a vic­tory for lo­cal busi­nesses, and it also means I have more choices for din­ner.

When a res­tau­rant can’t get its act to­gether, I’m dis­ap­pointed. Take, for ex­am­ple, Pho Kim, the new Viet­namese res­tau­rant in the Casa Solana shop­ping cen­ter (in the spot pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied by Xi­clo). The space is low on mood — tile floors, mix-and-match chairs, glar­ing over­head lights, an un­used widescreen tele­vi­sion lurk­ing in one corner, and a smat­ter­ing of de rigueur Asian dec­o­ra­tive ac­cents. I sam­pled some good food, and the em­ploy­ees were friendly. Pho Kim needs to do some­thing about ser­vice, though, and fast.

One Fri­day night, we waited for wa­ter, flat­ware, nap­kins, and menus for at least 10 min­utes. But we weren’t in a hurry, so we sat back and watched din­ers slurp­ing noo­dles and three servers fran­ti­cally scur­ry­ing around the room. A few din­ers re­turned in­cor­rect dishes, and at least one or­der was com­pletely over­looked. Plates ap­pear in the ser­vice win­dow one at a time, which is es­pe­cially trou­ble­some when you’re serv­ing ta­bles of six. One night, our meal lasted nearly two hours, only about a quar­ter of which was spent ac­tu­ally eat­ing.

When the food fi­nally does ar­rive, some of it is de­li­cious. The slen­der egg rolls were crisp, hot, and as greasy as you’d want them to be. The tasty ri­cepa­per-wrapped spring rolls are stuffed with shrimp or tofu; rice noo­dles, sprouts, and clean, crisp herbs. The mys­te­ri­ously de­li­cious “egg loaf” on the com tam bi suon cha plat­ter was off­set by fla­vor­less shred­ded pork and a chop with a smoky sweet­ness that was in­trigu­ing — but a tough­ness that was not.

Ab­so­lutely try one of the 12 va­ri­eties of pho — the Viet­namese noo­dle soup that may have been in­flu­enced by pot-au-feu (un­der­stand­able, since Viet­nam was part of French In­dochina for nearly 60 years). Tum­ble chiles, herbs, and sprouts from the ac­com­pa­ny­ing plate into your pip­ing-hot bowl of broth and rice noo­dles. Squeeze in some lime, and con­sider adding the chile sauce. The fla­vors — salty, spicy, cit­rusy, earthy, herbal, and veg­e­tal — are full, ro­bust, and sat­is­fy­ing, whether you’ve got steak and tripe or broccoli and mock duck in your bowl.

In bánh mì, sweet-salty pick­led carrot, sprightly ci­lantro, crunchy cu­cum­ber, disks of jalapeño, and var­i­ous meats are sand­wiched in a crusty loaf of French bread. The fill­ings of our “com­bi­na­tion” sandwich seemed a lit­tle sparse, es­pe­cially the char­cu­terie, but the fla­vors were bold and punchy, and they lin­gered long af­ter we had wiped the crumbs from the cor­ners of our mouths. These bánh mì are gen­er­ous, too: a half-sandwich re­sisted to­day makes a de­li­cious lunch to­mor­row.

Salty and fruity-sweet with herbal notes, the broth of the cahn chua cá bông lau (hot and sour soup with cat­fish) felt like a sa­vory tonic, one bowl to cure all your ills. Un­for­tu­nately, in the mid­dle of brothy bliss, I found un­der­ripe tomato and canned pineap­ple in my spoon (even tasty broth doesn’t im­prove a mealy pink tomato, and it turns canned fruit to mush). The thick cross-sec­tion of firm, fresh cat­fish looked meaty and de­li­cious, but I grew wary of chew­ing with rel­ish af­ter crunch­ing on so many bones.

The menu de­clared that a veg­etable ac­com­pa­nies all seafood dishes. Noth­ing of the sort ar­rived with my soup, but I let it slide, since our ta­ble was al­ready crowded. So was the din­ing room. As din­ers wan­dered in, we waited 30 min­utes, plates and bowls empty, to be of­fered our check. Soon al­most ev­ery ta­ble was oc­cu­pied. For a week­night, that’s a pleas­ant sur­prise, but with one server work­ing the floor and field­ing take-out or­ders, Pho Kim sim­ply wasn’t pre­pared. I was tempted to jump up and bus ta­bles.

Pho Kim is a de­cent, con­ve­nient choice, es­pe­cially if you live in Casa Solana. Don’t avoid it — un­less you’re not in the mood to wait. Mean­while, the man­age­ment should con­sider this: din­ers might be per­ma­nently turned off by poor ser­vice, and that’s a shame when your food is, for the most part, tasty. More em­ploy­ees can be ex­pen­sive, yes. No restau­ra­teur wants to have servers and not need them. But do you want your cus­tomers to need them and not have them?

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