I am a fairly adventurous eater but I was a little nervous. Wayne and I are continuing our World Tour of Food and neither of us had ever had Vietnamese before. We agreed to meet Amy at Pho Mac at seven o'clock.
We arrived a little early, before Amy, and weren't sure what to make of the unassuming strip-mall restaurant. From the front porch, we could see that they weren't very busy but they were very, very clean. As we stood there waiting, several groups of people went in, many of them Vietnamese. It's always a good sign for an ethnic restaurant when people of that ethnic group actually eat there. We were starting to get really excited when Amy arrived. The food on the tables we passed as we walked to the host desk looked and smelled amazing. The owner greeted Amy in recognition and we asked to be seated on the second floor.
The dining room was narrow and all of the booths were separated by bamboo screens. At the back end of each table was an organizer holding various hot sauces, small condiment bowls and Asian spoons. Amy looked over the paper, takeout style menu and described the dishes she'd eaten on previous trips. She said we'd order a variety of items, split them all and that the kitchen would bring them out as they were ready.
The first thing that came out was the order of crispy spring rolls. Along with the rolls came a plate with leaf lettuce, fresh mint and fresh cilantro. On the side was a clear dipping sauce with very fine threads of carrot and some white vegetable, perhaps daikon. It was slightly sweet and slightly tart and I loved it. Amy showed us how to wrap the spring roll up in a lettuce leaf with some mint and cilantro thrown in for good measure before dipping it. The resulting crunchiness followed by the softness of the filling was incredibly delicious.
Next was the crispy squid. I like calamari, but only the rings. I have a mental block against tentacles and I just can't bring myself to eat them, no matter how small they are. I wasn't expecting that the crispy squid would be chunks cut from the top of the squid (what would be cut into rings in an Italian joint). The pieces were small, lightly breaded, crispy on the outside and very tender to chew. They were laid on a bed of lettuce with some lightly sauteed onions and peppers in a garlicky sauce and came with a small bowl of a sauce that had a tomato base but was also sweet enough to have included some red peppers. I don't know what it actually was, but it was cold and tasty-- the perfect foil for the squid (and everything else on the table)!
We had shrimp over sugar cane which was a formed minced shrimp patty that was grilled and laid over chunks of sugar cane. It reminded me of the filling for shrimp toast, without the toast. It was a little bland but still very good.
There was some kind of grilled sliced pork over rice noodles: awesome.
Crispy shrimp with salt & pepper was good but they were fried with the shells and legs on, just split down the back for cleaning and we weren't sure if it was intended that we eat them that way or if we were to peel them. We peeled them and I think that much of the intended flavor was lost by discarding the shells but they were still perfectly cooked- tender and not rubbery with a little bite of pepper.
Our last dish was some sort of beef rolls. These were like mini-bracioles-- thin pieces of beef wrapped around a meatloaf like mixture and fried. The were yummy but unremarkable.
The crispy squid was so good we ordered a second plate.
I don't know if I'm totally sworn off "pedestrian Chinese" but I was already searching to see if there is a Vietnamese restaurant here in Reading.