Pho Ava won't break the bank or your diet - Albuquerque Journal

Pho Ava won’t break the bank or your diet

Chicken Pho at Pho Ava. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

If you sailed through the holidays without gaining an ounce, congratulations! You are in the minority as most are newly-committed to amped up exercise programs, promising diets and even cleanses to shed the excessive calories we consumed since Thanksgiving. But we know drastic changes never work. Instead, it’s about making better choices, eating more vegetables and lighter fare that won’t weigh you down. (Pun intended.)

Enter Pho Ava. Located along Cerrillos Road in the corner of College Plaza South, a nondescript strip center near Camino Carlos Rey, Pho Ava is owned by the extended family that also owns Pho Kim. Lucky for us, Vietnamese restaurants can be an ideal culinary redirect from the rich and gluttonous holiday foods that got us here. With a focus on fresh vegetables, herbs and clean proteins, Pho Ava has a plethora of healthy dishes to choose from.

Tofu and Grilled Pork Spring Rolls with Fish Sauce and Peanut Sauce at Pho Ava. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

The interior is simple with 12 spacious tables and several friendly staff buzzing around ready to take care of you. It was a snowy morning when my dining companions and I decided to order take out for lunch. Several of us had pho on our minds and it was a warm option we couldn’t pass up. But first we started with a few appetizers.

Spring rolls are my favorite as they are naturally gluten-free. We sampled the Tofu ($5.50) and Grilled Pork ($5.50) Spring Rolls. Each order includes two rolls which can easily be cut in half to share. Hand-rolled with care, each rice paper spring roll is filled with soft vermicelli noodles and plenty of fresh herbs – stuffed with either tofu, grilled pork or shrimp. The two sauces, peanut sauce and fish sauce, provide plenty of flavor for your dipping pleasure. I particularly liked the grilled pork which was the most flavorful of the two. But vegans will dig the tofu version.

As a fan of the Chinese pork buns, I was curious about Pho Ava’s BBQ Bahn Bao ($5). A baseball-sized bun is filled with minced pork, a slice of Chinese sausage and a hard-boiled egg. This street food is typically eaten on the go and makes a perfect snack or breakfast in Vietnam.

On a snowy day, pho was what we wanted to warm us from the inside out and it did the trick. Beef broth provides the backdrop for nine different types of pho, which is their best-selling dish on the menu. Proteins include Rare Steak, Rare Steak and Meatballs, Rare Steak and Tripe, Combination, Chicken, Shrimp, Seafood and Spicy Beef Combo (Bun Bo Hue). Prices range from $12.50 to $15.50 and one serving will likely provide you with your meal and plenty of leftovers for another meal.

Pho Ava Spicy Beef/Bun Bo Hue Pho at Pho Ava. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

In a big bowl, tender rice vermicelli noodles are the pillow upon which everything else is placed including protein or vegetables, plus lots of bean sprouts and a generous serving of basil and cilantro, along with lime and sliced jalapeños – for a much-needed hit of acid and spice. Then the savory beef broth brings this dish together in a serious way.

My dining companions enjoyed Chicken Pho ($12.50), Spicy Beef Combo ($15.50) and I went with the Vegetarian Pho ($11.50) with tofu. While my friends slurped their savory pho, I found the vegetarian broth a little underwhelming in flavor. But I loved the immense amount of freshly cooked vegetables – broccoli, carrots, bok choy, onions and mushrooms – plus the bean sprouts, jalapeños, lime and lots of fresh cilantro and basil. Adding a dose of the fragrant chile oil they provide was all this pho needed to make me fall in love.

For those not wanting soup, the Vermicelli Noodle Bowl is another good-for-you option. One of my guests thoroughly enjoyed her dish with Chicken ($13). Made with light and dark chicken meat, my friend bragged about the boost of flavor the fish sauce adds to this yummy combination of cold vermicelli noodles and vegetables including lettuce, pickled carrots and bean sprouts and the coup de grace are the fried onions sprinkled on top.

Vegetarians will relish choosing from nine different dishes on the menu including Vermicelli Noodle Bowls, Stir Fry dishes, Pho, Fried Rice and Tofu & Egg Roll Vermicelli Patties.

Being that the Vietnamese Sandwich is a widely-recognized global treasure of bold flavors and textures, we were not disappointed with the Grilled Pork ($10) Báhn Mì. A French baguette is filled with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled carrots, onions, jalapeno and cilantro and a ton of grilled pork. Hearty but not heavy, this sandwich is well-priced and packed with flavor.

What we didn’t get to try were any of the Stir Fry dishes, as we were told that something was broken in the kitchen so they couldn’t make us stir fry on the day we visited. The stir fry dishes come with your choice of steamed rice or rice noodles, your choice of protein and lots of fresh vegetables. Priced at $13 to $15, these feel like a steal and if the portions are anything like the pho, expect two meals for the price of one.

One of my dining companions swears by the Limeade ($5), a tart and sweet beverage that will calm your mouth from the unexpected bite of jalapeño or big dollop of chili oil. Freshly-squeezed lime juice is blended with just the right amount of sugar and water to make this a signature drink at Pho Ava that is lip-smacking good.

If you haven’t yet broken your New Year’s Resolution yet and are still on the path to focus on eating healthier in 2023 – or if you have veered from the resolution and want to get back on track, slide into Pho Ava for a wide assortment of wholesome dining options that won’t break the bank or your diet. With superb price points (and meals that will likely feed you twice), fresh ingredients and a ton of fresh herbs, Pho Ava is here to help you eat better and reap the rewards of a new you in 2023.

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