Food: Phở Quỳnh
Unpretentious Vietnamese restaurant serves up great congee and comfort food
The air has switched from hot and humid to cool and crisp. People are celebrating sweater weather and skipping off to the nearest pumpkin patch. It’s time for comfort foods, and for me, that means a visit to a local phở restaurant. It’s not only phở I want though; Vietnamese cuisine offers plenty of other brothy, spicy, warm-your-soul dishes that hit the spot. One, in particular, is congee.
Southeast of Plaza Midwood proper on Central Avenue there are a ton of options for great food from all over the world, including Vietnam. Nestled between another phở shop and a popular spot for Honduran food sits Phở Quỳnh, and I’ve been craving their congee since I had it last.
This spot is situated in the location of the former Mr. Paul’s Restaurant (after the property changed owners it became Ben Thanh, which has since moved to Matthews). The menu offers a good selection of Vietnamese fare at affordable price points. All beers are priced at $3.50 each. Yes, in this economy.
Whether you are already a fan of Vietnamese food or you’ve never had it, there’s something for everyone here.
I started with the congee, #37 Chao Long ($13.99). This dish is comforting; so warm-you-from-the inside-out, so flavorful, and delicious. If you love grits, you’re on the path to loving congee, but whereas grits are made from corn, congee is made from rice. The rice is overcooked until it breaks down to a porridge consistency, then chicken or beef stock is added to thin it out. If phở and grits had a baby, it would be congee.
This is a great congee and one of the few I’ve found in Charlotte so far. The base is light and simple, with pepper and broth flavors coming through, but not as much as the creamy, almost soupy, rice base. This is a good thing. It allows the other ingredients and optional toppings to shine and allows the eater to make the dish their own. The dish includes ginger, beef, and an optional pork blood addition. (It’s a delicacy for a reason — if you know, you know. It’s not for everyone.) It is topped with crunchy garlic, cilantro, and beansprouts. Like phở, there are lots of ways to customize the flavors. That’s where that neutral base is a great thing. Chili sauce, hoisin, jalapenos, and limes are provided as garnishes. Again, similar to how phở is presented.
The servers, who were attentive, fast, and friendly, raised an eyebrow at my decision to order an additional soup with my generously portioned congee. It was well worth the experiment - and potential embarrassment.
The #38 Cahn Chua Sweet and Sour Tamarind soup ($14.99) was next and it surprised me. It’s a giant bowl of clear broth with tomatoes, okra, cilantro, and pineapple. Initially, I was not excited to discover pineapple, but I quickly realized the pineapple was why I was enjoying it so much. There was a tropical sweetness I could not place that was opposite the tangy tamarind that was making the dish sing, and that was the source. So I put away my feelings about warm fruit and enjoyed this dish both for dinner and lunch the next day. I may or may not have been spotted standing in the break room at my office drinking the broth directly from the quart container.
This soup was delicious and simple and somehow felt medicinal in the way it soothed and nurtured. The dish is served with elephant ear plant, which is sour and crunchy. Notes of tamarind also punch up the sour notes, which again are a great balance to the subtle sweetness.
Our table shared papaya salad, #8 Gỏi đu đủ Khô Bò ($5.99) as both an appetizer and a digestif in between bites. Papaya is supposed to be good for the stomach and has a nice crunch, so I like snacking on it this way. It’s also something I can’t stop eating. I love the umami of the fish sauce and the beef jerky contrasted with the coolness of the young green papaya in Phở Quỳnh’s take on the salad.
We also had #18, Bún Tôm Thịt Nướng Chả Giò ($14.99). This is a dish with a bed of thin rice noodles topped with shrimp, tender, flavorful pork, cucumber, mint, cilantro, lettuce, and bean sprouts. This is an approachable dish. It’s simple, familiar flavors in the rice noodles and the beef, but includes a complex dipping sauce that included fish sauce and a prominent warming spice like like ginger or nutmeg.
The final item on our table was #43, Hủ tiếu xào bò ($16.99). This is wide flat rice noodles stir-fried with the works: chicken, BBQ pork, shrimp, squid, fishball (the best part!), imitation crab, zucchini, and cabbage. The flavors here were very light but tasty.
What we didn’t have room for on our table or in our stomachs was the Lau Vietnamese Hot Pot. They offer this as a group dish starting at $40 for two or $75 for four. This would have been an excellent cooler weather option and I will be back for it.
I would enthusiastically recommend checking this place out. The portions are generous, the people are nice, everything comes out fast, and the prices are fair. I’m so glad I decided to satisfy my craving and will be back soon.
Phở Quỳnh is open seven days a week, from 10 am to 9 pm. There is ample parking in the attached lot. They recommend ordering through the restaurant directly for the best takeout experience or coming in for a sit-down meal.
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