Real-deal Asian food is an easy score in Amherst, thanks to the University at Buffalo’s large community of international students. But that hasn’t included the flavors of Vietnam and Thailand, until now.
At first glance, Pho 54, a 50-seat restaurant off Sweet Home across from UB’s North Campus, seems to cater to typical American tastes: spring rolls, hot-and-sour soup, Panang curry and pad Thai.
However, while not deeply authentic, the nine-page menu manages to deliver a solid survey of Southeast Asian cuisines that specialize in contrasts. Think savory garlic, galangal and shallot paired with cilantro and mint. Funky shrimp paste and fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, and sour lime and tamarind. Fragrant lemongrass and pandan leaf.
Owner Chanpheng Souvannaseng hails from Laos, a small nation tucked between Thailand and Vietnam. It’s home to famous foods like sticky glutinous rice and larb, a fiery dish of ground meat, chiles and herbs. On the day I visited, both were out of reach.
Starters and salads include fresh spring rolls ($6), hot-and-sour soup ($5.50), chicken coconut soup ($5.50), green papaya salad ($10), chicken satay skewers ($6) and a beef carpaccio with fried shallots, peanuts, herbs and spicy ginger dressing ($14).
Vermicelli (rice noodle) bowls ($12-16) come with choices of shrimp, beef, stir fired chicken, grilled pork, tossed in fish sauce (nuoc mam) and served with lettuce, cucumber, mint, basil, bean sprouts, carrots, peanuts and pickled radish.
A banh mi ($6) appetizer came filled with noodle-y shreds of cured, barbecued and paté pork, topped with cilantro and pickled carrot and daikon. It had good crunch, no thanks to the baguette-style roll, which was French in name only. I wished the meat had been sliced in sheets to preserve some moisture and flavor.
After sampling the sandwich, I filled up on another generous app, banh xeo ($9), a savory pancake filled with pork, shrimp and vegetables, served with nuoc mam dipping sauce.
I first spied larb on Pho 54’s website and was excited to try it. At the restaurant, though, item G2 had changed to “chicken salad” made with grilled chicken—so, not the same thing? After ordering the other dishes, I asked for a copy of the menu again and found larb listed, to my (and my server’s) befuddlement. Regardless, please try it; it’s special and elusive indeed.
Bowls of the classic noodle soup, called pho, come in chicken, beef and two southern Vietnamese versions. My order of beefy pho bo (image at top of story) had a fat-rich, flavorful broth cut nicely by the accompanying bouquet of fresh herbs, bean sprouts and raw onion.
The soup had that singular Vietnamese essence of star anise, charred onion and fish sauce, along with a glorious pile of meats including rare sirloin, sliced meatball, brisket, tripe and tendon—all tender or gelatinous as required.
Entrees come in lunch ($9-$15) or dinner ($12-$18) portions, and prices vary depending on the protein: chicken, pork, tofu, shrimp, duck breast, beef, calamari, dry scallops, salmon or tuna. Examples include pad Thai, basil noodles, and green Thai curry. Three Vietnamese curries feature lemongrass, sliced peppers, dry black mushrooms and crushed peanuts.
Stir-fried rice dishes are served with standard steamed white or brown rice—no Thai sticky rice, sadly—and include the Pho 54 Special ($15) served with egg, barbecue pork, Saigon sausage and vegetables.
Seafood lovers will find coconut shrimp ($16), a “harmony of the sea” combo in lemongrass sauce ($19), and a deep-fried, whole red snapper ($22). Special entrees include wok-seared “shaken” tenderloin steak ($17), caramel pork loin in a pepper sauce ($14) and braised catfish or salmon, cooked in clay pots with a choice of caramel or turmeric sauces ($18).
Hot pots, installed at each booth by the previous Asian tenant, are used for groups, with one special of beef, seafood and chicken ($30 per person) in a sweet and sour sauce. Orders must be made a day ahead.
Japan shows up briefly in the form of miso soup ($4), sushi rolls ($7-$12), sashimi ($12-$17), tuna tataki ($12) and seaweed salad ($5).
Many dishes and the soy sauce can be gluten free, and are labeled if vegan, vegetarian or spicy. You can customize the heat on a scale from zero to “Asian hot,” a friendly warning.
To drink are herbal teas, Vietnamese hot or iced coffee ($1.75-$2.75) and smoothies ($5) in flavors like durian and jackfruit. They were out of both when I visited, so an avocado version did the trick.
Although not a sweet tooth, I might return to try, among other dishes, che ba mau ($5), a dessert known throughout Vietnam. The sweet, tri-colored parfait of green pandan-flavored jelly, mung beans and red beans is often served with coconut cream and shaved ice.
While other Thai/Vietnamese restaurants in WNY may boast more extensive or authentic dishes, Pho 54 is a good place to begin the journey through these sister cuisines, by way of Laos.
INFO: Pho 54, 1280 Sweet Home Road, Suite 101, Amherst. Phone: 428-5269. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
*Read more Starters from The Buffalo News here.