There aren’t many options for pho in Madison. Three, to be exact. There’s Ha Long Bay, which tries to cover every single Asian cuisine known to man, resulting in a tome of a menu where most items are mediocre. Their Vietnamese style beef stew is actually very good though, but needs to be saucier for mixing with rice. There’s Saigon Noodle which has a decent broth for their pho, but uses cuts of meat that look mostly like scraps. Their tendon is especially bad. Wah Kee Noodles has a token pho item on their menu but there are tastier things to get there.
The last option is the relatively new Pho Nam, and relatively speaking it is the best in town. The premises are clean and pleasant, service is always good, the owner is friendly and always present. Their pho broth started out divine over a year ago, gradually waned to being really good, and this past Friday, it was just OK. The spring rolls are good (but spring rolls are always good) and they are one of the few places where Schmoops and I don’t feel like we were gipped on the amount of sauce we were given.
They recently added Bahn Mi to their menu, making them the only place in town to serve them. The Asian Midway market occasionally carries prepackaged Bahn Mi in their refrigerated section next to the milk, but they only have Char Siu flavor, it’s shipped from Milwaukee, and there’s no paté on them — but they’re actually palatable and filling for $3.50.
The Pho Nam Bahn Mi is … very refined. “Asian street food” is not the first thought that comes to mind when this dish comes to the table. It’s very neat, all the slices of meat and pickled carrots (no pickled daikon, for shame) and cilantro neatly layered, the soft French roll easily picked up in your hands and easily deposited in the mouth without mess. Where’s the satisfyingly intense in-your-face knock you over with flavor flair of Asian street food? MIA. The pickled carrots are essential to Bahn Mi, but they don’t pick up as much acidity from the vinegar as daikon, and so the sandwich was missing tang. The paté was very mild. The bread, which I actually like a lot since authentic Bahn Mi style French rolls tend to hurt my mouth, comes from Copp’s. I’m not trying to bash it, it’s very tasty bread. I’m just saying, the entire thing is a bit timid.
They also recently raised their prices up to Madison appropriate levels. It used to be ridiculously cheap, and now the prices are just average for Madison, which is to say, $2 more expensive than Las Vegas and $2.50 – $3 more expensive than Los Angeles for a comparably sized entree. If you want a decent bowl of pho with good quality meats, competently prepared (at Saigon Noodles it’s pointless to get a dish with tendon because even though all you have to do to make tendon good is simmer the hell out of it, apparently they can’t accomplish that), this place is currently your only authentic choice in Madison.
Oh and if you disagree with me that this is the only place in Madison to get Bahn Mi, don’t even talk to me about the Bahn Mi they serve at Graze. It’s beyond pathetic.
Verdict: Was really good, now OK, hoping they ascend again.