Some like it hot
Granted, the crowning achievement of Vietnamese restaurants—a bowl of pho so hot it’s practically still bubbling—may not seem like just the thing in summer. A friend of mine from Australia, however, swears by a hot cup of tea at 3 p.m. on the hottest afternoons so that you sweat and therefore cool down. Based on my observations at Pho Cong Ly, a fairly new spot at the gateway to the long row of Vietnamese places on Stockton Boulevard, an awful lot of people subscribe to the same theory.
I had an excellent bowl of pho there for lunch when the temperature was in the low 90s. But on a recent dinner visit, it was still about 100 degrees as the sun was dropping low, so I went for rice-noodle salad with peppery egg rolls, grilled shrimp and salty-sweet grilled pork. The rice noodles were a little overcooked, but the fresh lettuce, cucumber and herbs added a delicious cooling crunch.
If you’re not familiar with Vietnamese flavors, these noodle salads are the perfect point of entry. The eager-to-please staff at Pho Cong Ly realizes this, too. The guys at the table next to us were clearly perplexed by the menu offerings but ready to try anything. The server sold them on a noodle bowl by charmingly describing it as “like angel-hair pasta.”
My husband chose from the menu section called “special broken rice.” These plates come with a choice of meat and a mound of fragrant rice, plus a fish-sauce-based dipping sauce. His was a trio of pork: the same grilled pork as my noodle bowl, plus shredded pork (unusual but tasty cold ribbons of soft meat, tossed with what tasted like toasted rice powder) and pork quiche (an oddly named slice of savory, finely ground meat mixed with clear vermicelli noodles).
We also tried spring rolls—variously referred to on Vietnamese menus as summer rolls and salad rolls. Whatever they’re called, they feature a translucent rice-paper wrapper rolled around a filling of fresh herbs and vegetables and, in this case, meatballs. The meatballs were more like sausage than a typical meatball, with a juicy, well-spiced flavor. The sweet peanut dipping sauce alongside the rolls was delicious.
I liked the fresh rolls better than the fried egg rolls, which I’d tried at lunch. The fried rolls were shatteringly crisp, but the herbs and vegetables alongside could have used an upgrade. The pleasure of this type of roll comes in enclosing the hot, savory roll in fresh, cool vegetables and herbs and then dipping the whole thing in fish sauce for a contrast of temperatures, textures and flavors. Here, there was no mint, and the lettuce was a bland iceberg type, which was hard to roll.
The pho, however, was great, with hints of cinnamon in the greaseless broth. I got pho tai, which has slices of rare (by which menus generally mean raw) beef. The soup accoutrements—bean sprouts, lime wedges, jalapeño slices and herbs—made up for what was lacking with the egg rolls. Perched on the enormous pile of bean sprouts and anise-scented Thai basil was the elusive sawleaf herb, something most Vietnamese places don’t bother with. It adds a fresh, pleasantly grassy note to pho.
The standard pho is plenty big, but if you’re, say, a lumberjack, check out the “Pho Super Bowl.” It comes with just about every beef and seafood option you can think of—and some you might not, like slippery tendon. The bowl looks big enough to swim a few laps in.
If just reading about a giant bowl of steaming pho is making you reach for your ice water, make sure you order from the astoundingly varied drink menu. The selection ranges from basics, like fresh lemonade and strong, sweet Vietnamese-style iced coffee, to a head-spinning array of bubble teas.
There are flavored milk teas, juice drinks like iced kumquat-lemon juice, “slushy/icy” drinks (including a not-too-sweet, dusky-flavored chocolate), and the poetically named snow bubble drinks. My plum snow bubble tasted nothing like plums and exactly like a Sweet Tart. A friend’s almond snow bubble was truer to its name and equally refreshing.
On my second visit, alas, the restaurant had run out of the chewy tapioca pearls that make these drinks such a delight. Even without the bubbles, though, they’ll cool you off as you head into the baking-hot parking lot, sated from a meal that fits August dining whether you’re looking to chill out or turn up the heat.