December 19, 2006

LEO's Eat 'N' Blog: Hungry and lonely on Christmas? Go Pho!

Pho Binh Minh: is a lovable and cozy spot (six tables) that recalls Vietnam Kitchen in its early days. Highlights include lemongrass beef stew (bottom) and grilled pork and noodles (top), plus plenty of fresh herbs and condiments.Psst! Lissen up ... I’m going to whisper, because I wouldn’t want to admit this to anyone except you, and you, and you over there, and maybe a couple of hundred thousand other LEO and LouisvilleHotBytes readers: With just about everybody nestled snug in their homes among family and friends on Christmas Day, it can get a little bit creepy out there.It’s not that I’ve got anything against family and friends and sugar plums and boughs of holly, but doggone it! Have you ever gone out and wandered the streets of Louisville on Christmas? The malls are closed and the parking lots empty. Groceries? Dark. Our favorite eateries? Closed, mostly, doors bolted and maybe a sign Scotch-taped to the front door wishing everyone a happy holiday. It’s quiet. Way too quiet. The wind whistles through the empty streets with an eerie echo, and the traffic, such as it is, mostly involves happy families with cars full of kids and presents, headed over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house they go.No matter how well-adjusted you are, it’s hard to blame a person for feeling a little bit cooped up and stir-crazy. Is there any relief? Other than, of course, Grandmother’s house?Well, maybe.Most of the major downtown hotels will have at least some food service on Christmas, to serve travelers who have to be away from home and family. Both the Seelbach’s Oakroom and the Brown’s English Grill are planning lavish midday and afternoon dinners, although we understand they’re mostly booked up, so you should call soon if this is an option. Sweet Peas Southern (2350 Frankfort Ave., 894-9091) plans brunch on Christmas Day from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and a country-fried Christmas dinner buffet from 4-9 p.m. And if you want to take a gamble, Portico and the other dining rooms at Caesars in Southern Indiana will be open throughout the holiday.Condiments: are plentiful at Pho Binh Minh and include a variety of sauces — hot, soy and hoisin.If that works for you, we’re happy. But I’m looking for something just a little more homey — and maybe a little more affordable — to satisfy my Yuletide dining-out crave. The answer, of course, is Asian. And specifically, for my palate anyway, Vietnamese. The granddaddy of local Vietnamese spots, Vietnam Kitchen (5339 Mitscher Ave., 363-5154) has developed a near-cult following on Christmas Day, and the friendly Annie Cafe, also in the South End at 308 W. Woodlawn Ave., 363-4847, offers an attractive alternative if the lines waiting for tables at VK are out the door. Quite a few Chinese spots, including my favorite, Oriental House (4302 Shelbyville Road, 897-1017), will also be open. Always ask for the authentic Chinese menu at Oriental House ... they’re happy to offer it to Westerners, and it’s printed in both Chinese and English, but you may have to ask.I’m currently smitten, though, with the city’s latest Vietnamese entry, Pho Binh Minh, a lovably cozy little six-table spot that opened in November in a short strip center (between a tiny Mexican grocery and a laundromat). It’s the kind of small, spartan quarters that one might be tempted to call a “hole in the wall,” but it’s far too hospitable — and frankly, too neat and clean — to suffer such a moniker even in jest.I’ve dined there several times with the same sense of joyful discovery that I remember from Vietnam Kitchen’s early days, back in the ’90s when it was about one-third of its present size and illuminated with about half its current wattage.Like the early VK, Pho Binh Minh is Vietnamese for Vietnamese, with a short menu of standard dishes, described both in Vietnamese and in brisk, functional if somewhat accented English. The same might be said of the owners, who appear to be husband and wife and might be Vietnamese or might be Cambodian: They’re friendly, hospitable and eager to please, with English that’s functional but that doesn’t really lend itself to extended interviewing. Bring a sense of humor and an appetite, and be prepared for occasional surprises, and you’ll leave Pho Binh Minh happy and well-fed, with a wallet that’s not seriously lighter than when you came.Pho Binh Minh opened in November in a strip center on Strawberry Lane.The dining room is small but well maintained, with sky-blue walls over oak paneling. Decor consists of three or four large Southeastern Asian posters that appear to have come folded like road maps, spread out and taped to the wall, featuring atmospheric scenes of villages, cranes and Asian sailboats. The six tables are draped in sky-blue cloth to match the walls, protected under clear vinyl, and there’s a small, brightly lighted Buddhist-style shrine on the floor at the back of the room. Every table is well stocked with a selection of Vietnamese condiments, including three hot sauces, two soy sauces, salt and pepper and a squeeze bottle full of dark, sweet hoisin sauce.The menu lists about 40 authentic Vietnamese dishes, divided into appetizers, sandwiches (Bahn Mi) and four main-dish categories: Pho (large soup bowls, the restaurant’s namesake); Hu and Mi (stews); Bun (no, not white rolls, silly. Noodle dishes), and Com (rice dishes). Appetizers start at $2.50 (for egg rolls or spring rolls), and main courses virtually all reside in the single digits, topping out at $10 (for Mi Xao, stir-fried egg loodles with beef, shrimp and veggies). Ban Xeo ($6), billed as an appetizer but sufficient for a light main course, falls somewhere between a crisp omelet and a thick crepe. It’s a sunburst-golden eggy round, pan-fried to a crisp, bubbly exterior then folded over fresh, crisp bean sprouts, tender medium shrimp and thin, bite-size bits of beef, served with a standard Vietnamese condiment: a small bowl of thin, vinegary fluid flavored with a hint of nuoc mam (fish sauce) and loaded with thin julienne strips of carrot and daikon radish. It may be poured over the dish or used as a dip.Banh Mi Thit ($2.50), a classic Vietnamese sandwich, reflects the ethnic fusion from Vietnam’s years as a French colony: A small, crisp-crusted but light French-style baguette is split open to carry a load of red-ringed roast pork, crunchy bits of cucumber and carrot, and a couple of fiery rings of thin-sliced raw jalapeño (so hot that the wary might want to remove them before eating), lightly spread with a pink, not-too-spicy aioli-type dressing. The combination of flavors and textures make it an exceptional sandwich, and at this price it’s one of the best lunch deals in town.Pho Tai ($6), a meal-size Vietnamese soup, comes in a bowl as big as a football helmet, rich and salty broth and lots of thin rice-noodle “vermicelli,” with a ration of thin-sliced, tender beef floating on top. In this dish the beef is put in raw so it cooks to a perfect rosy pink in the hot broth. (If you prefer your beef well done, ask for Pho Chin,  also $6, a similar dish that starts with well-cooked meat.) Most main dishes, particularly soups, come with an oval plate full of bean sprouts, thin leaves of Chinese cilantro and sprigs of fresh Thai basil, all of which may be torn up and dropped into the soup along with your choice of condiments.Looking for something more solid than soup, I tried Com Ga Xao Xa Ot ($7), a sizable plate of steaming white rice topped with bite-size pieces of chicken stir-fried with tangy strips of lemongrass, ginger and a lightly spicy marinade. The flavors were remarkably good, but note that the chicken is cut up in the Southeast Asian fashion with a bit of bone in almost every bite.On another visit, Bun Heo Nuong ($6) was a hearty dish for a rainy day. A large soup bowl was lined with lettuce and fresh basil leaves, then filled with a ration of thin rice vermicelli noodles (which, unfortunately, stuck together in clumps, although a little stirring with the sauce sorted things out), topped with thin-sliced pieces of savory grilled pork in a light brown sauce, garnished with a crunchy mix of chopped peanuts and browned onions.Even more hearty was Mi Bo Kho ($7.75), a dish that proved both warming and slightly challenging for Western taste buds trained to set off alarms in the presence of excess fat: Billed as “lemongrass beef stew,” it bore a surprising visual resemblance to standard American beef stew with chunks of meat and big pieces of cooked carrot over fettuccine-wide rice noodles in a thick, reddish-brown broth, topped with a garnish of chopped green onions and Chinese cilantro. As it turned out, the meat — a generous portion — was an ethnic mix of stew beef, beef tripe, chewy beef tendon and succulent beef fat, all of which contributed to a rich, almost gelatinous stew that would have to rate as a cardiologist’s nightmare. I willingly suspended disbelief and ate most of it, somewhat to my wife’s horror. What can I say? It was warming and good, and I didn’t need any dinner that night.This is a lovable little place. I’ll be back. And they’ll be doing it all on Christmas Day.Pho Binh Minh6709 Strawberry Lane375-9249Rating: 85 points A fast-food trip around the world at Camille’sMeanwhile, out in the East End, Eat ’N’ Blog correspondent SUZI BERNERT and her family checked out an already-popular new spot, Camille’s, a franchise operation based in Oklahoma, featuring an international if Americanized bill of fare that ranges in inspiration from Thailand to Italy to France.She reports: “The dining area fills a large open space with ordering counter and tables. Wi-fi is in the air, and by the time we arrived for an early lunch, several people already had their computers open and were surfing away.“Camille’s offers a selection of wraps, grilled hot wraps, panini, sandwiches and salads, plus a breakfast menu, coffee, soft drinks, smoothies and desserts. We picked a sunny table by the window, and our food arrived in short order. “Richard’s Italian Roast Beef Panini ($6.99) was built on focaccia bread with thinly sliced roast beef, provolone cheese, tomato slices, red onions and pesto-mayo, served with tortilla chips and a small cup of salsa. It was nicely grilled and hot; the beef was lean and flavorful, and the other ingredients well balanced. The salsa was fresh and not overly spiced. “The Paris Bistro Grilled Hot Wrap ($6.99) was a honey wheat tortilla filled with ham, Brie, green Granny Smith apple slices, spinach, tomatoes, red onions and a honey mustard sauce. It was grilled on the panini grill and served hot with a small green salad with a raspberry vinaigrette. Again, a good balance of flavors, though the Brie was a bit runny at first. “Camille’s offers a great change from the fast-food burger-taco-fried food cycle. In warm weather, tables are set up for al fresco dining.”Camille’s Sidewalk Café2060 S. Hurstbourne Parkway493-2005www.camilescafe.comNIBBLESStuff your stocking with a Louisville Originals gift certificateLooking for last-minute presents for your foodie friends? The Louisville Originals independent restaurant association now offers restaurant gift cards. Available online at www.louisvilleoriginals.com, cards can be purchased in any amount from $25 to $1,000, and are good at most of the organization’s member restaurants. Buy in bulk for all your friends: Orders of five or more cards receive a 5-percent discount on the total charge. And, beginning today, gift certs will be available at the customer-service counter at two local Valu Market locations, 315 Whittington Pkwy. and 1250 Bardstown Road. All five Valu Markets will carry them after the first of the year. Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com