Vietnamese cuisine is a culinary style that hasn't taken off in popularity yet in Pittsburgh, but is one of the best national cuisines in the world. During my travels in Vietnam I fell in love with the cuisine, but also came away with an understanding that it is also hard to do right as there is a fine line to make the sweet, spicy, and salty flavors work in many of the dishes.
There are several restaurants that do an incredible job at Vietnamese food in Pittsburgh, Tram's Kitchen and Lucy's Banh Mi cart being a few, and it was with great excitement that I visited Pho Van in the Strip District to try some more of one of my favorite cuisines.
Unfortunately, I left reminded why this cuisine is so hard to do right. Pho Van was a major let down.
The Ingredients Are There, The Flavors Are Not
I was excited to find that Pho Van had two of my favorite dishes, a beef vermicelli bowl (Bun Bo Nuong) and green papaya salad with shrimp (Goi Du Du Tom)- two dishes I ate quite often in Vietnam.
Green papaya salad starts with finely shredded unripened papaya (or mango) and includes vegetables, chilies, and a protein- all tossed with a generous dressing of palm sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice to name a few ingredients. As you can imagine, if you go light or heavy on any of these ingredients, it is a recipe for disaster. In the case of Pho Van, I do not think that the dressing was all that bad, but rather it tasted like there was hardly any dressing at all- leaving me wanting more of the flavors that were only slightly present. (I can assure you that unripened papaya and boiled shrimp by itself is not appetizing.)
This theme continued with the vermicelli noodle bowl, which had relatively mild flavors with the exception of the grilled beef which I could've had several more of during the meal. The accompanying chili sauce could have been the main flavor provider to the bowl, but the small portion meant I would've needed several additional cups to add the necessary flavors this dish deserves.
For a cuisine that I came to love for its powerful flavors in every bite, having a meal with those flavors lacking was very disappointing and did not inspire hope for future visits.
Vietnamese food can be much better than this.
Pho Van is located at 2120 Penn Avenue in the Strip District.
Looking for more Vietnamese food in Pittsburgh? Check out Tram's Kitchen in Lawrenceville or Lucy's food cart in the Strip District in the summer months! Or, for more reviews of Pittsburgh restaurants, click the previous link to be taken to our directory of every review on Discover the Burgh!
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