Access to decent Vietnamese beef noodle soup isn't a requirement of life, but it sure makes it better. On gray winter days I prescribe myself a bowl of pho. It must be administered correctly to achieve its full restorative potential.
From the plate of fresh herbs, sprouts, chiles and lime wedges, I pick a few leaves of Thai basil. Torn into piping-hot broth, they add soothing licorice aroma to the rising steam, already fragrant with five-spice. Spicy chile sauce and sweet, dark hoisin are options if the broth could use a boost or a head cold impedes breathing.
Ready, I grasp chopsticks in one hand and spoon in the other, ready to take my medicine.
Pho Cali, the new Vietnamese restaurant in the wilds of Elma, isn't the most sophisticated Vietnamese restaurant around. But in towns with no hospital, an urgent-care shack can be a lifesaver.
In February, Pho Cali opened in a little building that used to hold R & R BBQ. Blink and you'll miss your last chance for pho for hundreds of miles, until maybe Scranton, Pa.
City folk might turn up their noses at a restaurant with a jury-rigged vestibule, mismatched tables and sign decorated with hand-painted flames like a Soap Box Derby car, but inhabitants of the countryside who have weathered extended periods of pho deprivation might not even notice the décor.
Before we get to the soup, there are some appetizers worth considering on their own or conglomerating into a light meal.
Rice-paper rolls filled with rice noodles, herbs, shrimp, chicken and pork ($4.95 for two) were ably crafted and satisfying dipped in peanut sauce.
Like Pho Dollar, which seems to have inspired much of the menu, customers can also ask for do-it-yourself roll kits. Pick from seasoned ground pork or grilled beef ($11.95) or shrimp sausage ($12.95) and get all the ingredients you need to fashion six rolls. If you're a novice, you should also ask for a demonstration of how it's done.
For beef eaters, one standout appetizer was the bo nuong xa ot, or lemongrass beef rolls ($8.95). Supple grilled beef slices are wrapped around a crunchy onion lemongrass mixture to make pinky-sized rolls that arrive juicy with sweet lime fish sauce, topped with peanuts and scallions.
For fresh crunch, consider the salads of shredded cabbage, carrot and mint in lime dressing topped with fried shallots and crushed peanut. Goi ga ($9.95), with shredded chicken, is my favorite. (I found it by chance, since the dish description was omitted on the menu, which lost more words to the margins of poorly formatted pages.) Others come with shredded pork and shrimp, or just shrimp ($11.95).
Pho Cali's beef noodle soup is a worthy bowl, slightly lighter and sweeter than my favorite at 99 Fast Food. Pho comes in a dozen versions, with rare beef, cooked brisket, meatballs, chicken, tendon, tripe, seafood or a mixture ($8.95 to $11.95).
First-timers should try pho tai ($8.95), with rare beef slices that cook further in the hot broth. Use any, all or none of the accompanying plate of herbs, sprouts and lime wedges, as the spirit moves you.
Other soups worthy of note include pho bo kho ($9.95), which is beef stewed in a caramel broth, with carrots. The chocolate-brown broth, sprinkled with cilantro and scallion, hides a heap of rice noodles and chunks of beef. Some of them are tendon, in big enough pieces that you have to decide just how far you are going to take this whole carnivore thing.
Spice lovers should consider the bun bo hue ($9.95). This noodle soup was jacked with enough chile and lemongrass that eating the entire bowl would require an unwavering confidence in your own intestinal fortitude. Besides a pile of rice noodles, it held thick slices of Vietnamese bologna and thinner pork pieces.
Rice and grilled meat is a classic Vietnamese plate, and No. 41, com thit nuong ($8.95), was an excellent example of the form. Two thin pieces of marinated pork were grilled and brushed with sweet caramel sauce, a tender sweet-salty treat. A scoop of white rice with pickled carrot and daikon radish made it a meal.
Kho dishes, proteins simmered in clay pots with caramel sauce. Tom thit rim mam ($14.95) involved shrimp and thinly sliced pork, showered in fried garlic chips. The sauce was unrelentingly sweet, lacking the bittersweet edge of the best versions.
I also asked for the Cambodian-style flat noodles stir-fried with assorted seafood ($12.95) hoping to learn something about Cambodian tastes. There were loads of zucchini, celery, broccoli, baby corn and more, stir-fried with rice pasta, egg and sliced fish meatballs . Unless Cambodians like their noodles particularly sweet, insight escaped me.
The dining room has five fish tanks but no napkin holders, so we had to ask for some. The place is a work in progress. Maybe that's why the restaurant seemed to do two or three times as much takeout traffic as sit-down business.
Service, handled by a friendly but overwhelmed young man, can be shambolic. Incoming customers were not necessarily greeted and seated promptly, as the young man in flip-flops disappeared into the kitchen. During my visit, one couple, unacknowledged after they seated themselves, left before he emerged. If the server could get some help, the dining experience would be smoother.
Rough around the edges but a legitimate fount of Vietnamese delights, Pho Cali is a restaurant many small towns would be lucky to have. If I lived in Strykersville I'd be a regular, pho sure.
Pho Cali – 6 plates (out of 10)
Where: 5952 Seneca St. Elma, 675-8900
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $4.25-$12.95; soups, $8.95-$11.95; entrees, $8.95-$14.95.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Gluten-free options: Spring rolls, pho, rice noodle dishes.