Wed 15 Jul 2009
When it comes to Vietnamese cooking, we’re certainly not experts by any means. We’re lucky enough to live in an area where pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, is widely available, so we’ve had our share and can definitely make comparisons from one offering to another. But when it comes to banh mi, those sandwiches on crusty bread that represent the best impact of French colonialism on Vietnamese culture, we were virgins before visiting Pho 14.
But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so we decided to take our first step toward banh mi enlightenment on a recent evening in Columbia Heights. We had read several reviews of the recently-opened Pho 14 that spoke favorably of its sandwiches and their authenticity, so we stopped in for a bite.
What we found was an amusing combination of flash and simplicity inside. Shimmering translucent tabletops combined with a tiki-style bar in the back of the space to create a very scene-y vibe, but that was countered by decorations on the walls that seemed right out of World Market. We certainly didn’t know what to expect as we looked at the menu and found a spare listing of appetizers, soups, rice and noodle dishes, and sandwiches. We knew we wanted to try the sandwiches, but that was pretty much all we knew. With no preconceptions about what a banh mi should be, we put ourselves in our waiter’s hands.
“Which of these is the most traditional?” we asked when he arrived to take our order. We took it as a good sign that our server immediately identified the ‘Combination Sandwich’ but quickly qualified it by warning us that some people don’t like the combination of flavors and textures in it because they are unfamiliar. We assured him that was what we were looking for, and he smiled.
More of our experience after the jump.
Because we knew we wanted to try sandwiches, we had two choices to make: which sandwich, and whether or not to go with the banh mi platter or just the sandwich itself. At $8.95, the platter is actually a really good deal. You get your choice of appetizer (with the exception of the sampler), a cup of beef broth, and the sandwich of your choice. It’s a full meal, making this a budget-conscious Date Night option – two sandwich platters plus drinks will run you less than $25 before tax and tip!
We each got a platter, choosing the spring rolls and vegetarian spring rolls as our appetizers. The veggie option had tofu and bean sprouts in addition to the traditional lettuce, cilantro and vermicelli noodles. They were good, but nothing out of the ordinary. The non-vegetarian spring rolls combined pork and shrimp with the standard wrapper filling. They were very tasty on our visit, with the pork flavor predominant but not overpowering. From there we moved on to our broth, which was served almost simultaneously with the appetizers. It had interesting notes of anise and allspice that were frankly distracting from the basic beef flavor. I ate it all (What can I say? I was hungry), but Elizabeth took a few spoonfuls and decided that it just wasn’t working for her.
Our sandwiches followed in short order – service was both quick and efficient and the kitchen seemed to have no problem keeping up with the mostly-full dining room while we were there. My combination sandwich (pictured above), featured a thin spread of pate, plenty of julienned carrots, sliced cucumber and cilantro in addition to the slightly spongy cured pork that made up the majority of the filling. Elizabeth’s sandwich combined the same basic condiments with grilled pork that gave the sandwich a deeper, meatier flavor. Mine may have been the more traditional of the two (and I definitely did enjoy it), but Elizabeth’s sandwich with its grilled filling definitely came across as the more comforting flavor.
Getting to Pho 14 is not at all difficult, but it helps if you know what you’re looking for. If you’re walking up 14th Street from the Metro, you’ll want to be on the left hand side of the street (the side with the big DC USA mall complex). The next corner after the mall is Park Road. Turn left on Park and walk about halfway down the block. It’s easy to miss Pho 14 as their awning sign is most easily seen from the other side of the street and road construction tends to keep you pressed in close. Look for the menu and the name in the window and you’ll know you’ve found the right spot. They also take orders for pickup, and other sources have indicated that the to-go version of the banh mi (without appetizer and broth) runs $4 or so.
Considering the way we enjoyed this meal, I can’t help but look forward to more (and even more authentic) experiences with banh mi out among Northern Virginia’s myriad Vietnamese shops. Next stop, Eden Center! Who’s with us?