Before I first entered the humble room that is Pho Golden, I had encountered banh xeo, the Vietnamese crepe, at five other area restaurants. It's a particularly tricky dish, requiring speed, verve and timing to pull off correctly.
Coconut milk batter, golden with turmeric, is poured onto a griddle, with sliced pork and shrimp dropped into it. Then it's folded over a crunchy filling of fresh bean sprouts and served with fresh herbs, greens, shredded vegetables and fish sauce.
Considering the dispirited versions I received, sodden from bean sprout sweat or dripping oil, I'm not sure why I ever ordered a sixth. When Pho Golden's version arrived, I realized that after disappointing dalliances with a legion of imposters, I was finally face-to-face with the real thing.
"So this is what the fuss is all about," I mumbled through a mouthful, and reached for more.
At its best, the glory of banh xeo, such as those offered at Pho Golden ($8.95) is its diversity of flavor and texture. It also demands surrender, as it is best confronted in hand-to-hand combat. Tear off part of the folded crackling-crisp crepe, making sure to take some of the warm bean sprouts inside. Let it fall open to stuff with leaves of licorice-scented Thai basil, cilantro sprigs and gently pickled carrot and cucumber matchsticks.
Then dunk the handful into the nuoc cham dip, made of sweetened fish sauce and lime juice, and take a bite. Let the sensations roll: rich, salty, sweet, tangy, crunchy, tender. Sure, you'll want to wash your hands afterward, but you won't mind.
The chef is Ly Vo, and I set out to see what else Mr. Vo had to add to the area Vietnamese canon. The brief answer is that Pho Golden does everything a good local Vietnamese restaurant does, and a few things better than anyplace else.
Pho, the beef noodle soup of Vietnam, is here in all its glories, with your choice of add-ins, from sliced rare beef that cooks in the hot broth, to the dac biet versions loaded with meatballs, tendon, tripe, and a seafood version with shrimp, squid and fish meatballs ($8.95-$12.95). Pho Golden's version still takes a back seat to 99 Fast Food's pho, but it's close enough to argue about.
The bun bo hue ($9.95), pho's spicy cousin, with beef, noodles and Vietnamese cold cuts in its depths, is an all-Western-New-York bowl of soup with a subtle, seductive tingle.
What sets Pho Golden's best dishes apart is the level of finesse and fine-tuning. Spicy beef rolls (bo nuong xa ot, $8.95) are tender slips of beef wrapped around a crunchy filling of spicy onions and lemongrass, arriving on a bed of gossamer shredded cabbage, sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts.
Kho dishes use bittersweet caramel as a sauce base and broth enhancer. Two of Pho Golden's were the best around.
First, consider banh mi bo kho ($10.95), beef stew with toasted baguette, another prime candidate for warming up in frigid weather. If you didn’t know it was Vietnamese you might take it for middle American, with its fork-tender chunks of brisket and carrots. Except for the cilantro and the beguiling broth, faintly sweet and scented with star anise and cinnamon with just a nudge of heat. Thank history for the French move of providing baguette for essential dipping.
Tom thit rim mam ($12.95) is a clay-pot dish, arriving bubbling with rich sauce meant to be spooned over piles of white rice. Pho Golden's includes sliced pork, shrimp and garlic chips and is topped with tiny croutons of fried pork, putting this version a snout ahead.
Beef carpaccio meets its rousingly flavored Asian cousin in bo tai chanh ($11.95), rosy-rare beef tossed with lemon, then topped with fried shallots, marinated shredded onions and carrots, cilantro and peanuts.
Other standards were done well. Goi ga, shredded cabbage and carrot salad with poached chicken ($9.95), was light and refreshing. Banh mi, the subs of Vietnam, stuffed with shredded carrots, cucumber, cilantro and proteins like grilled pork, are solid ($3.75-$4.75).
A slate of vegetarian dishes included cubes of crispy tofu (dau hu xao xa ot, $8.95) stir-fried with lemongrass and vegetables. The hearty dish balanced freshness and heat in a way that omnivores should enjoy, too.
Also recommended, from the stir-fries: calamari in scallions in butter (mung rang bo, $10.95), salt and pepper shrimp with scallions (tom rang muoi, $9.95), fried seafood with crunchy, well-seasoned coats. Chicken wings in fish sauce, marinated, fried, then stir-fried in sauce with vegetables, were spicy but scrumptious.
Not so recommended: bo luc lac ($12.95), stir-fried cubed beef with vegetables in an unobjectionable but relatively lackluster sauce.
Pho Golden's dining room is spartan but serviceable. There is a large television that the server will turn down if it's bothering you. Food arrived swiftly, but since I never saw the room more than half full, that could change with a full house.
It has long rankled me that it's been hard to find excellent Vietnamese in the region's top tourist destination. I give you the best Vietnamese restaurant in the area, a restaurant where no dish hits $14. No great Vietnamese food in Niagara Falls? Phogettaboutit.
Pho Golden – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 3004 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls (215-6151)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $4.25-$12.95; soups, $8.95-$13.95; entrees, $7.95-$12.95.
Parking: Lot behind building.
Gluten-free options: Ask server.