When Pho Kim Chi became the first Vietnamese restaurant to open in Lackawanna, I wondered how the Southeast Asian cuisine would play in the heart of Steel City. The restaurant is near the corner of South Park Avenue and Ridge Road, around the corner from the unique orange-on-stilts bulk of City Hall. Streetside seats provide a terrific view of Our Lady of Victory Basilica.
I wasn't sure it would catch on, even though Vietnamese cuisine's sandwiches, noodle salads, soups and stir-fries make it one of the most accessible Asian flavors for American palates. When I got to the pork chop, I felt better about its chances. The thin rib chop was bone-in, and pork chops are better with bone.
The fat along its edges was rendered to a crunch, cooked carefully, patiently, just long enough. With a chop like this, the restaurant with the weird name might just fit right in.
Pho Kim Chi was established by William Mai, a Vietnamese restaurateur who established Pho Dollar on West Ferry Street before selling the place. He opened in what was previously Daisies Café.
The façade is plastered with color photographs of popular dishes. If you like the look of one, remember the number as you sit down inside. It's a huge room separated into several dining areas. There were four or five other groups eating, and noise never rose above a murmur.
One of the salient joys of Vietnamese cuisine is its penchant for customization. For instance, consider the beef noodle soup called pho (pronounced "fuh"), Vietnam's national dish ($9.95-$12.95). It starts with beef broth, rice noodles, cilantro and scallions, then you decide what sort of beef you want. Thinly sliced round, brisket, meatballs, tendon and tripe are all choices.
The bowl, so big it requires two hands to carry, arrives next. First, the server brings the fixings plate, a variety of ways to tune up your soup. It has bean sprouts (crunch), thinly sliced raw jalapenos (heat) and lime wedges (sour). Then there's springs of Thai basil (intensely licorice-tasting) and culantro, a long leaf that tastes strongly of cilantro, which add their aromas when torn into the hot broth. Add what you like along with ground chile paste (more heat), hoisin sauce (sweet) or soy (salty) to dial it in.
Pho Kim Chi's broth is on the sweet side, but has plenty of body and a wisp of five-spice and ginger. Meatballs and brisket are chewy, the tendon even chewier, and tripe offers a firm bite devoid of any skankiness.
A livelier bowl is the house special spicy kimchi noodle soup ($12.95), which adds a Korean angle with fermented Napa cabbage kimchi. Despite the name, it was mildly tingly as served, though certainly jazzed up with the added sourness.
The fix-it-up crowd also will approve of the banh xeo ($10.95), a large crepe of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric. It arrived folded over a payload of bean sprouts, shrimp and ground pork. Cut or tear off a segment, then doctor it up from a proffered plate before dunking it in sweetened fish sauce before chowing.
Fresh mint leaves were the favorite addition here, with pickled carrot and daikon radish plus matchsticked cucumber as other options. The crepe was tasty, though not as crispy-edged as others.
There are several fried noodle dishes on the menu, including pad thai, a nod to the best-known dish of another Southeast Asian country. Ordered with chicken ($10.95), it was rice noodles with a touch of wok smoke, nubs of scrambled egg and chewy sliced chicken breast. The pasta was sweetened but not particularly tangy, and lacking the usual bean sprouts and crushed peanut.
Bun are pasta bowls, where rice vermicelli is topped with proteins of the customer's choosing, including sliced barbecued pork, grilled shrimp, chopped fried egg rolls, sausage, and beef or pork stir-fry. The bowl arrives with its fixings composed on the surface, along with fresh herbs, shredded carrot, cucumber and other vegetation. The eater can decide how much sweet fishy sauce to add and stir the contents before tucking in.
Bun dac biet ($13.95) is the house combination: pork, shrimp, egg roll, crimson pork sausage and tender sliced pork skin (image at top of article). Barbecued pork was tender and sweet, the shrimp firm and plump, the egg roll satisfyingly crunchy. The sausage was slightly dry, and the pork skin more texture than flavor.
Rice dishes take a similar tack, offering many of the same proteins over rice, plus one notable addition: that pork chop. It gets sluiced in caramel sauce while grilling, giving its edges a pork candy aspect. Then when it's done – still tender, not leathery – it's brushed with scallion oil before coming to table.
You can get one straight up ($4.99). Or you can get it as the anchor of a dac biet rice plate ($13.95), the Cadillac version, with shrimp, sausage, pork skin, a chunk of pork quiche, a fried egg and pickled carrot and daikon. I got both, because I had company and didn’t want to make anyone get less pork chop than they deserved. There also is an extensive list of vegetarian offerings, employing vegetables and tofu.
The server brought us beer and wine after we asked him to see what kinds they offered, which he did with aplomb. Getting refills on water required going to locate him, but he was polite about it.
All of the dishes were decent. I just wish they would ease up on the sugar in the dipping sauce. If you eat meat, get a pork chop. If you want fried noodles, the pad thai will suffice. That is, as long as you don’t consider ordering Thai at a Vietnamese place a faux pas.
Pho Kim Chi – 7 plates (Out of 10)
Location: 2711 South Park Ave., Lackawanna (322-5173, phokimchi.com)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday through Saturday; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Prices: appetizers, $4.95-$12.95; soup, $9.95-$12.95; entrees, $9.95-$13.95.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: many dishes, ask server.
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