From fully-feathered chicks served boiled in their eggs to bottles of snake-soaked booze, Vietnam is not a country for the food prude. Pho Nouveau in Boise's downtown, however, offers a menu appropriately lacking the Southeast Asian country's most adventurous items, including beating cobra hearts and bushels of leaf-wrapped steamed mystery meat.
Pull back the heavy velour curtains shrouding the entrance, and the world of Pho Nouveau delivers up sturdy dark wood tables, stuffed high-back armless chairs, and a banquette spanning the length of the back wall. Without the conical Vietnamese hats that once hung near the entrance, tables set with chopsticks are the only hint of what genre of cuisine one might expect.
For those not well versed in Vietnamese, the menu is fairly straightforward, prominently featuring only protein choices familiar to the Idaho palate--chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu and even salmon--tossed in spices, wedged among noodles and lurking beneath the surface of a hot bowl of pho. Every dish emerging from the kitchen is visually dense and often comes spread across several plates and saucers. Nearly everything is served with a patch of fresh herbs and lettuce on the side, a sidecar of dish-appropriate sauce and the staff's brief explanation on how to hand wrap it and eat it.
With hot, crispy spring rolls come cucumber wedges and sprigs of cilantro for flavoring, green leaf for rolling and a mild fish sauce for dipping. Regardless of the season--spring ($6) or summer ($5.50-$6.95)--Pho Nouveau rolls tight, well-priced starters even if the accompanying sauces (fish for spring and peanut for summer) could pack a better punch. The pho, like all of Pho Nouveau's soups, arrives in a bowl large enough to serve an entire family with the requisite garden of herbs and lime on the side. As pho goes, Pho Nouveau's version lives up to its promise as Vietnamese comfort food while evoking the essence of the dish as you might find it in restaurants along the gringo trail in Vietnam's larger cities.
Since its opening last summer, my struggle over a half-dozen visits to Pho Nouveau has been to find a dish that begs my return. Most recently, the Hot and Spicy Beef ($10) has made the most lasting impression. The dish of thinly sliced, bite-sized beef delivers a wallop of lemongrass up front (thanks to a particularly effective marinade) followed by the swift heat of a garlic and chili pepper rub.
While I do enjoy Pho Nouveau, aside from the pho, none of the food takes me back to the market stalls of Ho Chi Minh City or the old-town restaurants of Hoi An. But this is Boise, where Vietnamese restaurants can get away with putting salmon on the menu and where I can sit back, order a Hue ($4.50) and enjoy the ride.
--Rachael Daigle is all pho a phood adventure.