I admit from the beginning that I don't know much about Vietnamese food, but I am always willing to sample a new taste palette. So when a friend said she'd heard that Pho Saigon in the Woodhill shopping center was worth a try, I was ready to go.
Just a note about Woodhill: That area has long been something of an incubator for expanding Lexington's restaurant choices. Over the years, I've eaten some very good meals representing a variety of ethnicities. Some have gone on to more prominent locations; others, sadly, are no longer.
Pho Saigon is about as unpretentious as a restaurant gets. The décor is basic, there's very little decoration, the menu is straightforward, and you order dishes by their numbers. The service, likewise, is friendly, helpful and prompt.
The prices match up with this profile. On one of our visits, an abundant dinner for three, with beer and plenty of food left over, was less than $60 before tip.
Some of the dishes I tried, at that dinner and a lunch, were good, and I'd be happy to have them again. But other items on the menu weren't that impressive.
For example, I had a strong feeling that the spring rolls ($3.95 for two) that I tried at lunch were mass-produced somewhere else and simply reheated before they came to my table. The rice paper was so sticky, it was hard to get them off the serving dish, and the filling was uninspired. The egg rolls ($4.95 for four) that we tried at dinner were a more successful combination of crispy wrapping with a pork, shrimp and vegetable filling that was well balanced and flavorful.
The best of the main dishes, I thought, was the shrimp Vietnamese pancake. For Westerners, it's really more of an open-face omelet, except crispier and tastier.
The pancake is served with large lettuce leaves, and you are supposed to wrap a leaf around a portion of a pancake. I did that and enjoyed it, but I thought the pancake was much better than the lettuce and on a return would probably eat it by itself. Also good was the vermicelli rice noodles, called bún ($8.95), that we tried with pork slices that had been lightly broiled to have a slightly crunchy texture. Topped with carrots, crushed peanuts and lemongrass and served with fish sauce, the whole came together as a flavorful mix that you could moderate as you chose, adding more fish sauce or soy sauce.
The two dishes I tried that were more traditional broths were a little disappointing. The beef pho is a beef broth soup with noodles and ingredients of your choice (we had an ample portion with round steak at $9.25). The broth was good but not great, and the beef didn't add much flavor. Condiments including spicy basil, bean sprouts, hot green peppers and cilantro comes with it and can be used to enhance the flavor. Like the bo kho ($8.95), a beef stew with rice noodles, that I tried, the pho was good but not outstanding.
Pho Saigon might not provide the most memorable meal you will ever have, but you will experience new flavors and friendly service, and you won't go away hungry.