Vietnamese, Pho Real
By Tom Baker
Before we break down the dining experience at Pho Mi (pronounced like “duh”), let’s talk briefly about comfort food. These are traditional, nostalgia evoking items: For me it’s buttered noodles, mashed potatoes, casseroles and most anything my grandmother made me. It’s richness of flavors, textures and histories, and I feel like you get some of that when you experience the food at Pho Mi. The only difference is that you’re eating spicy rice noodle soup with cilantro and meatballs instead of chicken and dumplings.
Tucked behind the Dayton Mall, Pho Mi is relatively new to the playing field. Operated by the same family that ran Wah Fu, before it was closed in order to make room for the ongoing Miami Valley Hospital expansion, their doors opened in December of 2010. Upon entering, the first thing that we noticed was the cleanliness, simplicity and openness of the space. With light music playing in the background, the dining room was mostly empty. Our table was set with water glasses, which were oddly removed and filled away from the table and then brought back, versus being filled tableside. Otherwise, service was pleasant and capable, with staff willing and able to help when needed.
The menu at Pho Mi is comprehensive, and as is the case at many other Vietnamese restaurants, the menu features a separate vegetarian section with meat substitutes and tofu filling in as proteins. They offer appetizers, soups, salads, noodle dishes and stir fry/rice dishes, as well as a handful of beers, including the Vietnamese Export 33, among other Asian brands. Offering you a cheat sheet for those new to the cuisine, their website even goes so far as to offer a “Top Ten” list of popular Vietnamese dishes. We used this as our guide in order to get a good read on what they had to offer, and we were glad we did.
We started with a Summer Roll ($1.50 each and larger than most), a soft roll with pork, shrimp, lettuce, Asian basil and noodles served with a sweet, peanut-flecked sauce that could have benefitted from a little spice (luckily, they provide a huge bottle of Sriracha chili sauce at the table). As we finished our roll, out came two more items off the top ten list — the Pho Tai ($6.75), the flagship dish of lightly seasoned broth, flat rice noodles, and thinly sliced beef, as well as the Bun Cha Gio ($6.50), a salad of lettuce, bean sprouts, thin rice noodles and chopped pork spring rolls topped with their “house sauce,” a light, rice vinegar and fish sauce dressing. The salad comes as is, and you simply toss the contents of the bowl with the dressing, but the Pho is accompanied by a fresh and aromatic plate of bean sprouts, Asian basil, cilantro, jalapeno and lime. The salad was good, but could have used some more vegetables, perhaps cucumbers or carrots to liven things up a bit and add some more depth to the dish. The Pho, on the other hand, was excellent, especially after the addition of the aforementioned accompaniments — I strongly suggest using them all, and for added complexity, adding a bit of the Sriracha and hoisin sauce provided at the table. This is Vietnamese comfort food, and on a blustery, rainy day, this multi-faceted yet simple dish really is a perfect meal.
The final item on their top ten list is the Banh Mi, and I’m pretty sure Pho Mi is the first of Dayton’s Vietnamese restaurants to offer this colonial carryover. The Banh Mi was born in Vietnam after the arrival of the French and their baguettes – in this case a sandwich of “Viet style” baguette, bbq pork, pickled carrot, daikon radish, cilantro, cucumber and a house made mayo with some fresh jalapeno for heat. This is not only a great sandwich that you might only find in areas with large Vietnamese populations like California or Texas, but at $3.95 it’s a great value for a unique sandwich new to Dayton – perfect for lunch. On the other side of this coin is their dessert – the only one offered is the Chuoi Chien ($3.00), fried banana-filled spring rolls served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Many other Asian restaurants offer something like this, so the presentation, while tasty, is a bit disappointing, because traditionally a tempura-like coconut milk-based breading is used as a common street sweet. That said, who doesn’t like fried bananas and ice cream? Further, my slight disappointment was washed away by the fact that we had a multi course dinner for two and paid less than $30 with tip.
Lately, I’ve been looking at some smaller independents, some of which could certainly be labeled a “hole in the wall.” In the case of Pho Mi, a Vietnamese noodle joint, one might make that assumption going in, but with its squeaky clean persona and its location nestled among the south suburban sprawl, Pho Mi is hardly a dive. It is, however, extraordinarily affordable and quite good, offering one of the best Asian values in town and proving that we all have our comfort food.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com