What the Pho?: How a Strange Food From Vietnam Found a Place in the Vegas Sun.
By Quincy Jaeger
It’s impossible to imagine a time when pizza wasn’t a mainstay of the American diet. In fact, in 2011 the United States Congress declared it a vegetable. (I’ll pause for a moment so you can bask in the idiocy of this – all done? Good. Moving on.) However, pizza started out in America as a strange family style food from Italy. It took nearly fifty years from its arrival on this continent to gain popularity among the huddled masses. Sushi, and the mere thought of eating raw fish freaked out the American people for decades before becoming a strip mall staple.
Like pizza and sushi before it, Pho came over to America on the boat. An influx of Vietnamese immigrants have settled in the Western half of the United States over the last 30 years, bringing with them flavors and techniques that were honed in tiny villages over centuries. Their cuisine adapting to the times, changes in climate, economic hardship, availability of ingredients, and demands of family life. I started seeing Pho restaurants about six years ago in Oklahoma. This surprises many, but Oklahoma City has a robust Vietnamese population that is part of an even larger, thriving Asian community. My first experience eating Pho was enjoyable and memorable, but I didn’t really think of it as something that would become part of my regular diet until a couple of years later when I discovered the local Las Vegas treasure that is Viet Bistro.
Since moving to Las Vegas in 2009, I have watched many Vietnamese restaurants pop up in the half empty strip malls all over town, taking advantage of the low rent and available space that has been a bittersweet upside for entrepreneurs in our troubled economy. Finally, Pho was gaining enough popularity and demand to venture outside the tight-knit fabric of our celebrated Chinatown (I have often wondered why Asian districts are still called Chinatown, even when there is little or no Chinese presence. It’s 2012, let’s get with the times!) to the rest of the Valley, extending in to Henderson and Summerlin. During this expansion, I discovered and fell in love with a small, lively place on Lake Mead and Rock Springs called Viet Bistro.
With its bright lavender walls, and cheerful kitchen sounds, Viet Bistro is a cozy and inviting spot, nestled between Market Grille Café and a cigar shop in Rock Springs Plaza. The restaurant was opened on May 19, 2011 in Summerlin by a Vietnamese-American man named Kevin Tom. Though born in Vietnam, Kevin spent most of his life living in Hawaii before settling in Las Vegas 8 years ago.
Kevin was a well respected jeweler in town for many years before deciding to follow his passion for cooking and open up a restaurant. The timing seemed right, as Pho was quickly becoming popular across the country. He told me of time he spent in Washington ten years ago when there were exactly zero Vietnamese restaurants around. As of 2012, there are 214 listings for Vietnamese food on Yelp in Seattle alone! He credits this emergence of Pho over the past two years as the ‘new sushi’ to the growth of the Vietnamese population across the nation as well as the never ending quest of Americans to find the next trendy food.
Pho (which is, much to my childish delight, pronounced – FUH) is quickly becoming the headliner on this Asian world tour of new cuisine. This is apt, since Pho has been the star of the Vietnamese culinary world forever. So what exactly is Pho? (Or, as I like to say, ‘What the Pho is that?’) To me, Pho is a delicious, fragrant soup of rice noodles and tender beef with lots of fresh herbs and spice. To say this is a gross oversimplification of a beautiful process. Kevin was kind enough to take some time to educate me on exactly how Pho is created, and the unique techniques he has developed to appeal to his specific clientele. I met with him on a rainy Tuesday afternoon during the lull between the lunch and dinner rushes to discuss not only what the Pho he makes, but also what the Pho it is that makes Viet Bistro so special.
Though Vietnamese, Pho is steeped in French influence. This is evident in the fascinating process Kevin uses to make his broth. The broth is the foundation of all Pho and Kevin treats it with the utmost respect. The broth is beef, created by simmering a large leg bone for fifteen hours (!), constantly stirring and skimming for the first three to four hours until the marrow has dissolved and what is left is a rich, flavorful beef stock that is crystal clear. Clarity is a necessary characteristic for a palatable Pho broth. Kevin advised me to look for this quality first and foremost when evaluating my Pho.
A clear appearance signifies that the marrow has simmered enough to fully dissolve and release the maximum amount of flavor. A large leg bone is best used not only for is abundance of marrow, but also because the bone itself adds a sweetness to the broth that is impossible to get from any other source. The process must be perfect. Too short of a simmering time or too much direct heat during the simmering process changes the taste and compromises the final result. This commitment to perfect flavor and painstaking attention to detail is an obvious result of Pho’s French roots. The broth serves as a canvas for whatever ingredients are to make up the Pho, so it must be exact.
Unlike many Vietnamese restaurants, Kevin does not add any salt or MSG to his dishes. He prefers to utilize fish sauce, a cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine to develop a more complex, savory quality that is often overlooked. In his words, fish sauce ‘takes everything one notch up’. Kevin wants his diners to experience Umami, or the ‘fifth taste’. While this may sound exotic, it’s really just a fancy borrowed Japanese word, meaning ‘pleasant savory taste’. You are likely very familiar with the taste, as it is found in cured meats, mushrooms, green tea, and tomatoes to name just a few examples. Umami, together with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty makes up the range of human taste, all of which are present in the dishes offered at Viet Bistro.
The majority of the dishes at Viet Bistro center around the broth. The P7 Pho Tai, with sliced round-eye steak is their most popular. Paper thin slices of beef and thin rice noodles are added to hot broth served just under boiling temperature. It is served in a giant bowl garnished with fresh Thai basil, mint leaves, lime, bean sprouts, and sliced onions and cilantro that the person who is dining can add to the Pho. Spicy Siracha sauce and sweet Hosin are offered on the side to enhance the flavors of the dish. Vietnamese cooking, though filled with fresh offerings, often utilizes sauces and seasonings to enhance and create new flavors from familiar ingredients. The options for meat, vegetables, and level of spice are endless, and completely up to the person dining. Since pho is served sort of deconstructed in a large bowl, it is easy for one to create their own masterpiece with the ingredients provided.
What is most remarkable about Viet Bistro, however is not the food, but the owner himself. Kevin Tom has created a sort of microcosm in Summerlin; a neighborhood hangout where customers have become friends, and despite living in a city with infinite dining options, these friends keep coming back over and over again. I first approached Kevin with the intent of asking him a few simple questions about his restaurant and found myself welcomed into what I discovered to be a thriving neighborhood gathering spot. What started as a few questions about Pho, became an in depth discussion about trends and cultural influences on American Cuisine.
What was meant to be a 15 minute interview lingered for hours into the dinner rush and we found ourselves joined by several of Kevin’s regular customers. First, a gentleman waiting on his order overheard our conversation and joined in with “I don’t want to interrupt, but I just want to tell you that I eat here every day and this is the best Pho I’ve ever had!” I invited him to join us and learned that this man is a local raw food chef who had discovered Viet Bistro quite by accident and then made it his daily spot, building a rapport with Kevin and his family along the way. He offered insight into vegan and raw food recipes and explained that while he consumes mostly raw food the one cooked thing he does eat is a dish not on Viet Bistro’s menu that they prepare specially for him. A second man, Michael has been coming to Viet Bistro regularly since its opening and has developed a friendship with Kevin. Michael was eager to sing Viet Bistro’s praises, stating that half the fun of Pho is creating the dish in the broth yourself – ‘it’s an adventure!’, and advised me that I could not leave without trying Viet Bistro’s special iced coffee.
I was delighted by the simple cold drip method of preparation and the charming banter between the two men as they argued over how much milk to use and who prepared better coffee, Kevin or his sister Tanya. The warm and friendly scene before me made me smile. It was clearly a conversation between friends, not simply a proprietor and a customer. It is this simple element that sets Viet Bistro apart. When you choose to dine at Viet Bistro, you are welcomed as a friend. The iced coffee was delicious, cool and sweetened by condensed milk. I was warned that drinking this concoction this late in the day would leave me wired, and it didn’t disappoint. At 2:45 a.m. I was still wide awake, alternately cursing the evils of caffeine and thinking about the fun I had at Viet Bistro.
Kevin operates on the simple philosophy “If you can’t eat it, don’t expect your customer to!”, and admitted that his greatest pleasure is seeing people finish their meal. He is not afraid to ask if something is not to their liking if they don’t clean their plate.
This kind of care and attention is refreshing, as it is clear that the crew at Viet Bistro is completely committed to creating simple delicious food that the guest will love. They recognize that their restaurant appeals to an American clientele and they are eager to please with slight modifications to American tastes, all the while keeping the Vietnamese cuisine authentic. Kevin has no formal culinary training. His cooking education was a combination of family recipes and Google searches; this appeals to me as it mimics the way I grew to learn and love cooking.
Everything at Viet Bistro is made from scratch and with love. You truly are getting a home-cooked meal every single time you dine with them. The passion for creating a delicious experience that people will want to come back and have again and again is their ultimate goal and you can taste the pride they take in their cooking in every bite. So what the Pho are you waiting for? Go get yourself some Viet Bistro!
Viet Bistro is located at 7175 W Lake Mead Blvd, Ste. 125 Las Vegas, NV 89128. Open Mon-Thu 10 am – 9 pm Fri-Sun 10 am – 10 pm