Buzzwords are funny things, especially when it comes to restaurants. Some places comically tout “authenticity,” others present an expensive mishmash of ingredients as “fusion“, while still others bandy about words like “original,” “modern” or “seasonal”. “Tapas” has come to mean miniscule portions paired with overpriced drinks, regardless of whether the food bears any resemblance to something one might find in Spain.
How did that happen? I stay away from places that associate themselves with buzzwords, as I’m convinced they mean I’ll be paying a premium for the privilege of taking part in somebody’s concept. I have nothing against concept dining, I‘m simply not interested in paying extra for it. My favorite places are more pedestrian: hole-in-the-wall joints where I can get a great meal without an obligatory side of pretense. I go out to eat, not to affirm my social status.
This kind of thinking brings me back to places like Pho Grand (277c Grand Street, between Eldridge and Forsyth) again and again.
Food nerds who spent time in Denver, Houston, SoCal or anywhere with a substantial Vietnamese population could disparage Pho Grand as “inauthentic.” They’d have a point. One does not expect the staff to be speaking Cantonese in an “authentic” Vietnamese restaurant. What they serve is Chinese-influenced Vietnamese cuisine, delicious in its own right, but not exactly the same as Viet food. The diner willing to take this place on its own terms will be rewarded; it qualifies as “fusion” cuisine, just without the inflated prices that come when a restaurant defines itself as such.
Highfalutin this place is not. The décor is wood paneling in the front room, booths in the back. The layout and prices resemble a diner, attracting families, students and those looking for something exotic without breaking the bank.
Much of the food is straightforward, with clear, if not wildly nuanced flavors. Fresh mint, lettuce and cucumber play against pickled vegetables and sweet sauces. They’re unafraid of sugar in their dipping sauces and marinades, but I wouldn’t consider their use of it excessive – I think of it as an invitation to indulge in some extra heat from the hot pepper sauces at the table. Many of their best dishes combine these flavor and texture elements with grilled meat, fried spring rolls or rice noodles. Wrapping your meal in lettuce leaves with mint and pickled vegetables, then dunking it in sweet sauce is just plain fun.
What to order? Well, the pho is good: salty, aromatic broth with rice noodles, meat and toppings added at the table (Thai basil, bean sprouts and fresh lemon juice). Those who consider themselves connoisseurs of the stuff could list criticisms, but they’re not eating here. (They’re at Cong Ly or Nha Trang whining about the general state of Vietnamese food in NYC – as annoying as those who complain about the BBQ or Mexican food here).
The #1 pho is a good choice if you’re in the mood for a big bowl of noodle soup. It’ll set you back $6.25, and you’ll be stuffed upon finishing it. Paper thin slices of eye round cooked to perfect med-rare in the soup, and the other bits of beef (tendon and the like) increase the light broth‘s depth of flavor. Season to your liking with condiments at the table. (I like a little squirt of hoisin sauce and a healthy one of Sriracha). No one will notice whether or not you pronounce it “phuh”.
If soup isn’t your craving I’ll heartily recommend the spring rolls to start with. They come with the aforementioned lettuce leaves, mint, veggies and dipping sauce, and are among the best I’ve had. They’re small, so a large order is a good idea. The grilled pork with tiny rice stick (#33, $8.95) is another stunner – currently my favorite menu item – coming with the same accoutrements. And if you just can’t get enough pork you can order at few skinny grilled pork chops a la carte ($2 each), which have the same sweet-salty thing going on as the grilled pork. (The grilled sesame seasoned beef – #34 – is also quite good, but the pork is outstanding).
If you’re not feeling the pork, let me recommend an off-the-menu choice: fried whole flounder in spicy sauce. If they have flounder that day they’ll do this for you. The sauce will be a sweet-sour-spicy affair with lemongrass flavor. The cost will depend on the size of the fish, but it’s never set me back over $20. Add a noodle or rice dish that catches your eye, and it’ll be more than enough to feed two. This was the dish that I fell in love with Pho Grand years ago. And I know I wasn’t the only one making the trek from the East Village to Grand Street just to get it.
A diner-like place with over 130 menu options is bound to miss the mark on some of them. I’d recommend giving the green papaya salad (which didn’t even make it onto the delivery menu) a pass. This classic dish is rendered simply edible here, using not green, but pink shredded papaya. Makes for an arresting visual on the plate. A generous garnish of Thai basil was not enough to overcome the stingy amount of crushed peanuts and overall lack of flavor beyond a little hot pepper burn. Avoid. The same could be said of the calamari, which is basically a serving of salt and pepper squid with a very sweet chili dipping sauce. It’s a little more interesting with the “French Butter Sauce” (hot pepper, onion and bell pepper sautéed in butter – also not on the delivery menu), but still not crave worthy. I’d also say stay away from the Chicken Lemongrass, green pepper, onion and chili sauce dish (#83), unless you’re really craving lots of sweet stir-fried onions. The curried chicken (#39, $5.95) fares a little better: it’s the typical yellow-orange coconut milk curry you can find all over Chinatown, but it’s a good example. The sit down menu also has a number of Chinatown classics such as sautéed water spinach and razor clams in black bean sauce. I’ll stand by my recommendations.
Those in the mood for a beer ($3.25) can choose Tsing Tao, Heineken, Saigon or 33. They also have house wine (both white and red at $6 a glass), but I haven’t tried either. Fans of sweeter drinks have a number of fruit drinks to choose from, including adventurous concoctions like pickled lemonade and durian fruit shakes. Vietnamese iced coffee ($2.25) is also available.
Bottom line: This Chinese-Viet diner is charming and inexpensive, with a number of standout dishes. Good choice for a casual meal out, especially if you’re into the combination of sweet and spicy flavors. The pho and the dishes that come with the lettuce-mint-pickled-veggie-dipping-sauce combination (spring rolls, grilled beef or pork with tiny rice stick) are great choices.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.