Soup for the Soul
Central Ave., Albany, 436-1868. Serving lunch 11-2:30 Tue-Sat,
dinner 2:30-9 Tue-Thu, 2:30-10 Fri-Sat, 11-9 Sun. D, MC, V.
price range: $8.50 (pho bo) to $20 (Van’s three-meat
possible that pho, the name for a much-loved Vietnamese
noodle soup, derives from the French pot au feu, a
stew-like soup that, tradition would have it, is simmered
in a continually refilled pot that never leaves the fire.
The influence of French cooking on the Vietnamese gives a
special elegance to this part of the Asian spectrum. A good
pho is prepared with a stock that has been brewed for
hours, so why shouldn’t there be language fusion as well?
People swear by pho as a restorative—a curative, even—and
delight in the mixing of flavors to achieve the right balance
of its elements. You may have lime juice to squeeze into it,
sriracha sauce to ramp up the heat, bean sprouts for
crunch, and sweet hoisin sauce to add to the mix or
use as a dip for the meat in your soup. And that meat selection
can be varied. Traditionally, a variety of beef cuts is offered,
with chicken, shrimp and tofu as alternatives. At Van’s Vietnamese
Restaurant, beef round, brisket and meatballs are the most
popular choices, available in every combination.
I chose all three ($9). The soup arrived quickly, the meat
already in place. (Some restaurants serve a near-boiling broth
in which you poach raw beef slices, but that’s not Van’s custom.)
It’s a large serving—too large even for me to finish at a
sitting. The broth is deeply infused with beef flavoring,
as befits the cooking time, and the component meat and noodles
make it a complete meal that may require all the utensils
you have at hand, chopsticks and spoon at the very least.
Prepared this skillfully, it’s a can’t-go-wrong dish, also
available for lunch. As I enjoyed the dish, I promised myself
that I’d make sure to try it when I feel the first scratchy
signs of the inevitable winter cold.
Chef-owner Hung Van Nguyen opened his restaurant some nine
years ago at a Madison Avenue location that had been the home
of My Linh. His current location, to which he moved in 2006,
was the home of Saigon, a cafeteria-like place with great
Vietnamese food, an incomprehensible menu and what seemed
like nonstop Asian karaoke. It shares a stretch of Central
Avenue with a growing number of places offering some needed
ethnicity. The ambiance has been dressed as much as can be
reasonably expected in a large retail space, reminding us
that a visit here is more about the food, but the look of
the place is as good or better than you’ll find on Mulberry
Street in Manhattan.
The appetizer list is dominated by spring and summer rolls.
Although neither is typically fried in Vietnamese cuisine,
in this case the spring rolls take a trip through the hot
oil and still emerge as light as they are crispy. We ordered
the combo of pork and shrimp ($5.50 for a plate of four) that
also contains, within that gossamer wrapper, rice vermicelli
and vegetables, with a side dish of sweet dipping sauce made
with nuoc mam, a fermented fish sauce that gives an
unexpected completeness to whatever it joins.
Three salads are offered, with shredded chicken or poached
shrimp for $6.50, or sliced beef for $10, each with an array
of vegetables, cabbage, peanuts and/or nuoc mam.
The entrée list is daunting in its breadth. Want some duck?
There’s a crispy, boneless half for $19 and an oven-roasted
variety for $16 or $30 depending on whether you want it half
or whole. A grilled lemongrass-marinated pork chop is $12;
add shrimp and it’s $17. Barbecued pork is $14. And there
are chicken preparations galore, including tantalizing coconut
milk-based curries. These are from the served-with-rice side
of the menu. The served-with-vermicelli side offers the many
selections all over again.
Charged with seeking a representative variety of offerings,
the rest of my party ducked into the comparative safety of
chicken dishes. So I was able to sample crispy roasted chicken
(half for $11; whole for $19; half was plenty). I have to
confess that I’m happy enough when a chicken comes out of
the oven with at least some of its juices intact. Here it’s
both juicy and redolent of ginger, and, as promised, crisp.
That adjective is all over the menu, even used to describe
the two meat-filled crepe dishes, filled with chicken or shrimp
($15 each). It’s a large portion, with the single (but crispy)
crepe struggling to contain its payload, in our case shredded
chicken with bean sprouts and mushrooms. Again, the flavors
melded nicely, set off with a dash of nuoc mam.
You can get your crepe with tofu at the same price, one of
eight vegetarian- designated dishes that also include curried
tofu ($14), hot and sour tofu soup ($14), sautéed tofu with
vermicelli ($15) and minty, fried vegetarian spring rolls
over vermicelli ($11).
Service was attentive, even as a number of parties strolled
in during our visit, and the experience was surprisingly cheerful
in an understated way. I’m ascribing that sense to the pho
I consumed. It’s addictive.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Beaujolais time, and the folks at Provence
(Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany) invite you to join
them for their 10th anniversary celebration with
the 2009 release of George Duboeuf Beaujolais
Nouveau. A three-course menu will be offered tonight
(Thursday, Nov. 19) through Saturday (Nov. 21).
For starters, choose mussels Marseilles, pumpkin-sage
bisque or duck confit salad. Entrées include braised
black Angus short ribs, rotisserie-roasted stuffed
heritage hog pork loin, pan-seared fillet of salmon
with zucchini-wild mushroom sautée, and boneless
quail stuffed with tart cherry bread pudding.
Dinner includes a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau,
and there’s a choice of dessert. It’s $37.95 per
person, and you can make a reservation by calling
689-7777 (provence-restaurant.net). . . . Maestro’s
(371 Broadway, Saratoga Springs) continues
its Five Dollar/Five O’Clock entrée special through
Nov. 25, giving you a choice of four entrées that
are $5 apiece. The catch? Your entire party must
be seated by 5 PM—not one minute later! Reservations
are highly suggested, so call 580-0312 (saratogamaestros.com).
. . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.