SANTA FE, N.M. — I had been sorely disappointed when Lan’s restaurant closed on the corner of College Plaza South on Cerrillos Road. A spot where I occasionally met friends to dine and chat, it had a varied menu with interesting ingredients and flavorings. So I was excited to see that a new restaurant, Pho Ava, also with Vietnamese cuisine, opened in its space.
Alas, it turned out to be something of a disappointment. First of all, maybe I should clarify that I’m not much of a noodle fan and much of Pho Ava’s menu orbits around that ingredient. To me, noodles’ main purpose in life, unless they are exceptionally flavored and freshly made, is to serve as a vehicle for magnificent sauces or as filler in a tasty broth.
Still, I was willing to give them a try and was particularly interested in testing the pho featured in the restaurant’s name. When my friend and I asked to hear any daily specials, the waitress pointed to one of the menu items. Not a special per se, but it was titled Pho Ava Special Noodle Soup ($21) with lobster, scallops and shrimp. Since I’m a seafood fan, I readily agreed to order that, while my guest opted for the same seafood combination in a crispy egg noodle stir-fry ($14).
While waiting for the entrees, we sipped some jasmine tea ($4 for a large pot). At the beginning, it was nicely hot with the gentle flowery flavor suitable for that green tea. Since the leaves were left in the pot, though, a final pour of the tea at the end of the meal was surprisingly harsh.
We also shared an appetizer, two grilled pork spring rolls ($4), although we needed to ask the waitress for two small plates from which to eat the offering. I was delighted by the piquant spicing of the thin line of pork on the top, but that pleasant flavor was somewhat muffled by the abundance of rice vermicelli noodles – sort of cool and slimy – stuffed into the wrapping. The dipping sauce was so mild that I could barely distinguish the tastes of the dipped and undipped rolls.
The entrees themselves were just OK. The first few dips of my soup spoon into the pho were satisfying, revealing a subtle flavor enhanced by the chopped green onions I happened to pick up in each scoop. But as the soup cooled and the onions were eaten, it rapidly lost flavor. I tried to brighten it up by tearing pieces of basil and cilantro presented on the side, but they didn’t make much difference. The bean sprouts also on the side contributed some crunch, but little flavor – and also served to cool the soup even more quickly.
The differences among the shrimp, lobster and scallops were apparent mostly through texture – their tastes didn’t seem very distinct. And the large glob of the rice vermicelli at the center of the bowl added little to the flavor. Perhaps one of the meat variations of the pho would have been more satisfying.
My friend’s stir fry was a little more interesting, especially visually, presented as a feast of colors amidst a nest of crunchy noodles. The veggies, such as carrots, broccoli and celery, were nicely al dente, and the seafood portions were generous – but again somewhat lacking in flavor. My friend described the sauce as “a little bit sweet, but really salty.” To my taste, it was similar to what one might find in a Chinese restaurant chain. Perhaps that was because of the use of MSG in the sauces, as noted on Pho Ava’s Facebook page.
One intriguing menu item was a banh mi – a sandwich of tasty grilled pork on at least a foot-long, crispy-crusted baguette – that my friend ordered as a take-out for her husband. At $7, it looked to be a good deal. The well-stuffed sandwich, with a side of salad or something else at home, could yield three full meals!
Stir fries, noodle bowls and noodle soups are primary menu items, with variations of protein and veggies contained within. Shakes with some unusual (for Santa Fe) fruits, such as jackfruit or lychee, were on the menu, but we didn’t try them.
The restaurant must be doing something right, because it was full with apparently happy people on a Friday evening.