If it were possible to take a full-color X-ray of my belly after leaving Pho Nouveau, downtown's newest contemporary Vietnamese comfort-food restaurant, I imagine it would've looked something like the ocean floor: wisps of seaweed-like clear noodles, sprigs of mossy cilantro, bean-sprout foliage, a couple of snappy mussels and a few bright orange shrimp, suspended in a clear liquid. This odd visual popped into my mind as my dinner date and I were paying our bill, comfortably full and brandishing a large leftover container, after a recent visit to Pho Nouveau. How, I wondered, could a pile of roughage, fresh seafood and rice noodles have possibly gotten the two of us so full for such a reasonable price?
A quick answer to that question is a magical two-hour window called happy-hour (4-6 p.m.). My date and I arrived at Pho Nouveau, parting the joint's billowing red velour curtains with a precious five minutes left on the happy hour clock. We quickly put in an order for fresh summer rolls with grilled salmon ($6.95 regular, half-priced happy hour), a glass of Sterling cabernet ($7.75, two-for-one happy hour) and a draft Sockeye Dagger Falls IPA ($5, two-for-one happy hour). Glancing around, I noticed that the restaurant, with its handful of dark-wood tables, inoffensive glass-art and Starbucks-y lighting, catered to a surprisingly diverse crowd--young families, college-aged folk and older married couples. Distracted by the summer rolls' still-warm salmon and not-too-sugary peanut-flecked dipping sauce, we took our sweet time deciding on our entrees. For the most part, the rolls avoided the unfortunate rice wrapper plague: They didn't split their rubbery pants after the first nip of sauce, spilling their guts to and fro in an unseemly fashion.
On our server's fourth attempt to take our order, we finally got down to business, selecting the clear noodle soup ($9.95) with shrimp, crab meat, mussels and calamari in a sweet clear broth, as well as the grilled shrimp banh hoi ($13). Both dishes, while tasty, are not recommended for those wary of a full-contact dining experience. Whether you're extracting the meat from a tiny crab claw, battling a mussel shell for its miniature morsel or slurping up a glob of glass noodles, the soup is a dig-your-fingers-in, bust-out-your-bib experience. The same can be said of the banh hoi, a DIY lettuce-wrap creation station that comes with a pile of thin rice noodles, garlicky grilled shrimp and a tray heaped high with green leaf lettuce, cilantro, mint, carrots, cucumbers and Vietnamese coriander. When tugging the crunchy tail off a shrimp or trying to keep a pond of sweet chili sauce from spilling out the ends of a lettuce wrap, it's futile to attempt any amount of grace.
Unwilling to exert any more energy getting our food from plate to mouth, my date and I threw in the proverbial towel. Scanning the destruction we had caused--noodles splatted on the table, puddles of vinegary Vietnamese dipping sauce and wilting cilantro leaves clinging to empty water glasses--we grinned like school kids after a food fight. I piled the table's remaining edible goods into the pho to-go container and imagined the mess I'd make later at home.
--Tara Morgan thinks a big mess is quid pro pho for a good meal.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Pho Nouveau.>