When I first saw the pork buns ($7.95) at Pho District (2401 W. 7th St., Ste. 117), I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake. The bun itself looked like a Dr. Scholl’s insert for an orthopedic shoe. But with the predictability of a love-struck protagonist in a rom-com, I was able to see past its leathery exterior to what was on the inside: tender, semi-sweet pork belly with a terrific meat-to-fat ratio, spicy kimchee, a Lincoln Log-sized chunk of cucumber that had a lovely cooling effect on the spice, and the ubiquitous scallion that shows up in so many Vietnamese dishes. Even the bun, which felt like sticky dried glue on my hands, was pillowy soft in my mouth.
The rest of my first meal at the new-ish West 7th eatery was mostly good, with a few hits and misses. The décor looks like it was ordered out of a Pier One catalog, with dark wood as far as the eye can see, and generic Asian touches sparsely scattered throughout. It’s a comfortable, open place with good feng shui and a stylish indoor-outdoor bar, but it doesn’t exactly transport its diners to Hanoi.
The salmon belly skewers ($5.95) were moist, fatty, and fishy in a good way. The drunken wings ($5.95) with Asian slaw were a dried-out disaster. Were they not so scandalously overcooked I might have enjoyed dipping them in the accompanying thick, not-too-sweet peanut sauce.
The only thing to rival the sticky buns was the beef banh mi ($8.95), a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. Buttery slices of filet mignon poured out of the lightly toasted French bread like cream oozing out of an éclair, begging to be dipped in the pho sauce –– a no-nonsense rich, intense beef broth that tasted like it was days in the making. I also sampled the pho ga ($8.95), with quail eggs and thinly shaven slices of chicken. The chicken broth had a flowery aroma and sweet taste, and the longer the eggs sat in the stew the more overcooked they became. But overall, it was a satisfying, dressed-up comfort dish that’s a perfect compliment to our current cooler temperatures.
Overnight, my rom-com turned into one of those obsessive-lover movies. I couldn’t get those buns out of my head. For a couple of weeks, my standard answer to almost any question about food was “We should check out that new pho place on West 7th — I hear they have good pork buns.”
My subsequent visits followed the same plot line as the first. I tried some decent dishes, like the pho ba ($9.95), with filet mignon, brisket, and rubbery meatballs in an almost-too-sweet broth, and some not-so-great ones. In that category were the traditional spring rolls ($5.95), cut like a sushi roll, but bland, tough, and desperately in need of more shrimp and mint and less vermicelli. Nothing outshone the pork buns.
I eventually had to step away from the buns when a couple of my friends staged an intervention by bringing me a couple of pastor tacos from Revolver Taco Lounge and a slice of Black Forest cake from the Swiss Pastry Shop –– the culinary equivalent of jangling their keys in my face. I’ve moved on to eating other things, but I still think about the buns often. Maybe I should call … no. I’m going to stay strong, at least for another week.
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