Not just another pho joint
Pho Ru Restaurant6115 Mack Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95823
Many food writers argue the word “authentic” should be abolished from our collective vocabulary when talking about specific types of cuisine. What does “authentic” really mean? How can we Americans who have, say, never spent more than a week in Vietnam claim to know what “authentic” pho tastes like? Why don’t we write about how that old diner cooks up an “authentic” American cheeseburger instead?
I bring this up because one of Sacramento’s newest Vietnamese restaurants does not try to be 100 percent “authentic.” For that reason, Pho Ru transcends expectations for what you’d get at another pho joint: stir-fried clams with black mushrooms and water chestnuts are scooped up with airy shrimp chips ($9.95); fresh spinach colors fried rice a vivid green ($9.95 with a whole hen); lemon-cured shrimp brighten up a refreshing cabbage slaw ($9.95).
Yet Pho Ru is steadfastly the sort of place people say is “authentic” or “tastes like Vietnam.” Whether or not that’s true, I do not care.
Owner Lynn Nguyen moved to the states from Vietnam about 20 years ago. She ran a successful Vietnamese restaurant in the Los Angeles area, Song Phat, for 11 years. She opened Pho Ru in August, relocating to be closer to her husband’s family. Said husband is also the chef and creator of most of Pho Ru’s subtly unusual recipes.
“We create something different,” Nguyen says. “Too much traditional, you know?”
Sure, Pho Ru offers a pho menu—and its pho is better than most—but the restaurant specializes in other stuff, like beef stir-fries and seafood. Nguyen, always present on the restaurant floor, is generous with advice for how and what to order.
Hopefully she recommends the YaYa rainbow trout ($12 and up, depending on size) to everyone who walks through the door, because it’s a true star. Coated in cornmeal, the whole trout’s skin fries into a thick, crunchy snack, leaving the flesh soft and lush. With fried garlic chips, lightly pickled carrots and daikon, and a sweetened fish sauce, both the textures and flavors are big and bold. It’s the sort of dish I started politely eating with chopsticks and aggressively finished off with fingers.
The BoBo butter crunchy beef ($8.75) similarly produces savage instincts. Strips of beef boast crispy edges and abundant sesame seeds for an extra gratifying crunch. Fish sauce, garlic and chili sauce coat the meat, and no matter how full, you should have no trouble finishing the plate.
For something more traditional but equally exciting, try the tapioca crab noodles ($8.95), a dish from Nguyen’s native Saigon. The soup is viscous and almost gravy-like, marvelously coating the slippery, thick and chewy tapioca noodles with bright crab flavor. Thin slices of tender pork, shrimp and creamy quail eggs make you feel as though you should have paid much more for such a well-stocked, delicious bowl.
The only miss was the aforementioned fried rice with hen—the flavor fell short of its exemplary good looks. But the herb-roasted quail appetizer ($8.25) is an excellent alternative: glistening but not oily, with crispy skin and succulent meat. It was even better dipped into a combo of Sriracha and lime juice, per Nguyen’s suggestion.
Pho Ru looks spacious and modern, with bright red booths and columns left over from its previous occupant, Chelo Restaurant. Servers are very kind and caring—especially Nguyen—if a little too caring at times. Still, Pho Ru stands out in Sacramento’s crowded Vietnamese dining landscape for its location inside a Filipino shopping center, its return-visit-demanding trout and its admittedly inauthentic ways.