Plates hot, waits not
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?