Thursday, January 20, 2011

Phở 27: Vietnamese, Milwaukee Style



I have been lied to for the majority of my life. My family, my friends, my co-workers have made jokes at the South Side's expense for longer than I can remember. UCLA: University of Cudahy by the Lake, Almost. South Milwaukee, Whitefish Bay, nothing smells like Cudahy. If your side of town has an equal number of bars and churches, you might live on the South Side. You might be on the South Side if you see people wearing camouflage at social events (including weddings and funerals). Bucyrus, Milwaukee Forge, and Ladisch are "Corporate America." Yeah, yeah. I get it.

Frankly, and I don't think I'm alone here, I believe the South Side has been getting an undue bum rap. More than half of our favorite restaurants are South of I 94, and I don't think that's an accident. After having been raised in Washington Heights, and moving to the South Side a few years back, I've grown to love and appreciate the weird, wonderful, happy and strange diversity and opportunity that the South Side hosts. No better do I see this tenet illustrated than in Phở 27. 

Located at what is quite possibly either the nexus of the South Side, or what happens when you try to divide by zero, Phở 27 lives in a smallish building which started life as an Arthur Treacher's, and was most recently a Hardee's (or Carl's, Jr., for you folks West of the Rockies), then a Super-A-Number-1-variety Chinese restaurant, right smack-dab on 27th Street, a few dozen feet from Layton Ave. The exterior of the building is homely:


Which we all found almost laughable, considering how beautiful and stylish the interior is:



Warm wood panelling, neat and simple wood-top tables, chestnut ceiling, track-halogen lighting, and a dining area awash in a calming glow from giant lotus-blossom pendants. A small bar area lets you get sauced before your friends arrive for dinner, and a comfortable, long banquette divides the formal seating from the bar. 

With all of these amenities, one thing you won't find in the entire restaurant is a CFL bulb. Glory hallelujah, praise be to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even the cans in the ceiling have PAR floodlights. Not a single speck of bad lighting in the entire restaurant -- very, very classy.

When we arrived, mind you late in the evening (I think our goal was about 8:30pm), the dining room was reasonably full. It was a Saturday night, but during a snow storm (which, really, doesn't keep people indoors anymore), and late... mind you, late. I get excited when I see dining rooms as busy as Phở 27's was. We sat along the banquette, and our bubbly, youthful waiter helped us get situated by moving a few tables together to better accommodate our food/cameras/drinks/everything else.

It should be mentioned that our orders were inordinately complicated, and we asked to have itemized, individual checks -- and our server didn't bat an eyelash. Not only that, but everything arrived as ordered, no mix-ups, no extra/missing charges. Kudos to Phở 27's fresh-faced wait staff for being on the ball!

Being that it was Pay Day, and I was blinded by my winter-break-no-school full check, I decided to order almost every appetizer on the menu. We started things with an order of Shrimp Spring Rolls:


Served with a creamy, sweet, and thick peanut dipping sauce:


As well as egg rolls (actually, two orders of egg rolls... we were celebrating, after all):


Served with a tangy sweet / sour sauce:


Everyone's favorite dim-sum staple, shrimp toast:


and Phở 27's own Saigon Wings, which, much to my disappointment, were not lowered onto the table via helicopter:


As well as a couple of pots of hot jasmine tea:


And, to be a little out there, a Mango Smoothie Boba Tea Mongrel Conglomeration:


I know, that's a lot to take in. I'll go slow. I promise.

Let's start at the beginning; the spring rolls. I'm sort of a fence-sitter to spring rolls, really. They can either taste fresh, crisp, and clean, reminding me of all of the great veggies of, well, Spring. Or, they can taste cold, insipid, and bland. Despite having a whole garden of veggies, as well as some nice, plump shrimp, the spring rolls fell short of any wow! quality. Combine them with the peanut sauce, and you have an entirely different story. With a little salt, a little sugar, and a little fat, the spring rolls come alive, and all of the different flavors of the vegetables start to sing and harmonize and become an actual composition. Ahh, finally: a dish where the dipping sauce is actually vital to the complete concept, instead of being an afterthought. Okay, the point shall be awarded to the spring rolls in this round.

Egg Rolls! C'mon down! You're the next contestant on In My Mouth This Instant. I'm sure all of my co-workers are going to make some great jokes about that one at the Staff Party this year....

The egg rolls were a solid departure from the usual wonton-wrapper variety we'd expect at a Chinese joint. Densely packed, with pork, bean noodles, minced shitake, and taro root, they were a big hit at the table. I liked mine with a little Sriracha more than with the sweet and sour sauce they were with. 

The Shrimp Toast was a complete and utter surprise: I was expecting a very staid version, and instead we received beautiful oily, crispy, savory, shrimp-y triangles of heaven. Strange but true, I kinda fell in love with the shrimp toast.

The Saigon Wings were a real mind-bender. Marinated, then coated in... sugar? Deep fried, so that the sugar? caramelizes and forms little crunchy sweet scales all over the surface of the wing. The photo doesn't really portray the actual texture: it's as if the wing were crackleur. Very, very odd. But tasty. Odd and tasty. I'm still a little miffed... as I was harried, taking shot after shot of our food, my fine Eating Milwaukee staff-mates ate every wing except the one I had on my plate: which was very tasty. I just wish I could have downed may another wing. If not, even just a drummy would have sufficed...

The hot tea had a very, very light floral scent which I will (probably incorrectly) assume was jasmine. Other than one pot tasting a bit stronger than the other, it was everything hot jasmine tea should be.

My beverage, which most would call Mango Bubble Tea, but is in fact a mango smoothie with boba pearls, made me bat my wide-open eyes like I was auditioning for a Nicki Minaj video...

A little bit creamy, a little bit icy, a little bit sweet, and a little fruity. The mango was probably just shy of ripe, and the drink didn't blend entirely smoothly -- I still hit my fair share of ice chunks and fibrous bits of mango. Nonetheless, it was tasty... just not a home-run. 

Just about the time I was able to really grasp the breadth of appetizers on the table, our food began to arrive. The run down is as follows:

Andy: Beef Cube Steak with Onions



 Adam: Rice Noodles with Lemongrass with Beef and Onion


 Lauren: Chicken with Lemongrass


 Joe: Special Phở 27



Would you still love me if I told you my heart was racing when our entrées arrived at the table? Each one of us had ordered slightly out of our comfort zone, and right then, on the snowy Friday night, after an exhausting week of work, the thrill of New Food was coursing through my veins. I felt alive.

Andy's cube steak was incredible. Tenderness beyond imagination, and a smoky, wok-fired sear coupled with softened onions -- the flavor was at the same time both very familiar and lusciously exotic. Andy had gone out on a limb -- asked our server what his favorite was -- and order, sight unseen. Thus started our gastronomic Vietnamese adventure.

Adam's noodles were a refreshing bright spot against the dark smoke of Andy's beef. Crisp veggies, chewy rice noodles, mild but flavorful beef, and crunchy peanuts. Despite the bowl being the size of Adam's head, he did an admirable job consuming the lot. No doggy bags for these gents! 

Lauren's chicken with lemongrass was spicy: I was actually a little worried at first, because Lauren likes the same spice level I do: mild plus. Bight the sunny notes of citrus and the complex, layered curry-like sauce won her over. I would say it won me over, too -- I had to take a second, third, fourth bite to make sure I wasn't imagining how incredibly tasty it was.

And then there was my Phở.

I've never had Phở. I've seen Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain, and Rachel Ray eat Phở. I've seen glimmering bowls of the concoction before. Noted how the floating meaty parts looked strangely like offal (I was right), and that the clear, lightly brown broth looked watery and flavorless. I imagined Phở to be like a lot of other so-called "National Dishes": a culinary eunuch, without any sort of will or might or shred of actual heritage or dignity.

Luckily, my Phở had balls. Pork meatballs, to be exact. Along with eye of round, brisket, beef tendon, and tripe. 

I broke a rule: I ran away from food I was scared of. The problem is, I hate tripe with a fiery passion. I know that gastronomes everywhere are now taking me off of their favorites bar in their browser windows, and the gathered masses yearning for my head on a stick all started lighting their torches and sharpening their stakes in unison. I'm sorry, guys, I just really can't stand tripe. So I ordered my Phở without it.

The broth was an out of body experience. With so many things going on, your mind disconnects from the idea of both flavor and such thin, simple appearance. Floating above the broth is an aroma; sort of a five-spice smell, there's cinnamon, maybe star anise, maybe clove. The perfume is so light, though, it's almost a whisper, almost a ghost: the spirit of spices hovering in the near-field, lending a little warmth, like the feeling of a loved one who just left a room.

Pull the beaded curtains of spices away, and there's beef: big, brassy, unmistakable beef. The beef is a bouncer at the Door of Club Soup: rippling muscles, piercing stare. You can't help but be taken in by the beef. On the finish of all of this umami-rich beef flavor there's just a bit of the barnyard, an earthy, real-bones-were-used-in-this-stock sort of flavor. Slurp a little broth, let it air out, and suddenly it turns a little brighter, flavors of the green onion snap into the foreground.

My Phở was served with a plate of a accoutrements:


Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime, jalapeño, and culantro. I shredded the basil by hand, tossed in a few bean sprouts, gave Andy the jalapeño to munch on, squeezed in the lime, and cautiously ripped up the culantro. 

The basil, lime, and bean sprouts bring freshness and green garden flavor to the deeply rich broth, the culantro just kinda tasted a little odd to me. Probably because I've never actually encountered culantro before, and I had to look it up at home purely by appearance: I didn't even know its name at the restaurant. Regardless, it has a flavor that I can't compare to anything I've tasted before: sort of medical, sort of phenolic, sort of astringent. 

The meatballs are not big, crumbly ground-meat style balls, but rather dense, tightly packed little wads of flavor, with the texture of a fresh, warm cheese curd.

By the time I actually finished taking pictures and began to eat, my rare eye of round had pretty much cooked through in the scalding broth. Which was really just fine, it was still fabulously tender and had taken on the salty magic of the broth. 

My biggest surprise of the evening was the beef tendon -- something I had, through much inner monologue, convinced myself to approach with an open mind. The gelatinous blob quivered in my China spoon, reminding me of all of the shoe-leather cuts of budget beef my father cremated on the grill when I was a child. I quelled the sighs of fear and disgust, raised the spoon to my lips, and...

The beef tendon was astounding. The texture wasn't frightening, it wasn't even odd. Sort of like a beef-flavored gummi bear -- which sounds a lot weirder than it actually was. Chewy, but giving, and chock-full of lip-smacking gelatin. I was hooked. 

The rice noodles themselves were plentiful, lurking at the bottom of the bowl like white slithery sea monsters. Giving nice body to the soup, they were nevertheless a pain to eat with chopsticks. Remember, I am Polish.

We finished off the evening with a serving of Coffee Flan:


Créme Caramel, oddly enough, does have some background in Vietnam, as a product of French influence. So much so, it has a half-borrow-word Vietnamese name: either bánh caramel or bánh flan. Say that one five times fast.

The custard was rich, with only the slightest hint of coffee in the caramel. A little like Jell-O towards the outer edge, becoming decadent and creamy in the center, the one smallish portion was perfect shared with the four of us: just enough desert to cap our food safari experience.

Epilogue

Andy said it best: Phở 27 is one of those rare combinations of incredible food, amazing prices, and exceptional service. Tucked away in an uncomely building, Phở 27 delivered surprise after surprise, from its delightful décor, to mile-a-minute wait staff, to food that is both art and tradition, craft and craftsmanship. We were all a little wired after the meal, probably from the sheer shock of the entire ordeal. From the moment we walked in the door, Phở 27 exceeded our expectations, met us with open arms, and gave us a delicious, challenging, exotic, and magnificent meal. We were able to speak with the owner before our visit came to a close, and he mentioned that business has been steady, which I certainly hope is the truth. Phở 27 opened late in 2010, and has since then impressed a number of food critics in the Mil', and I can certainly see why. My hope is that the rest of the city sees what a diamond in the rough Phở 27 really is, and has the courage to step out of their edible routine and try something just a little daring. The owners of Phở 27 have certainly done so, trying their hand at a restaurant that might have seemed a little out of place just ten years ago. Now, though, the dining room is full, and my prayer is that Phở 27 keeps serving up hot bowls of goodness for a lifetime -- I know they made life-long fans of the EM staff.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A-
Beautiful conversion of a very homely building. Warm woods, welcoming lighting, and a chíc, airy feel. The classiness of the dining room melds beautifully with the well-executed grub. 

Prices: A+
Pretty amazing, considering the quality and care (not to mention portion sizes) of the dishes you receive. My gigantic (actually regular sized) bowl of special Phở was only $7.50. Choose only one meat, it goes down to $6.95. Most appetizers are in the $3.50-$5.50 range, and Andy's exceptional cube steak was a mere $8.50. 

Service: A
Fun, talkative, helpful, and enthusiastic about food... and about us. The young men working the tables the night we visited made our meal that much better. 

The Food: A
I want to go to Phở 27 once or twice more before I give it an A+, but I can honestly say our meal shone like a diamond. Complex, exotic, fun, and miles beyond ordinary. There wasn't a true misstep in a single item we ordered. 

The Details:

Phở 27
4756 S. 27th St. 
Milwaukee, WI 53221
(414) 282-9990
Excellent website (with menu) available at http://www.pho27.com



Pho 27 on Urbanspoon

2 comments:

  1. Love Pho27. Been there once and had Lemograss Beef and Spring Rolls. Both were some of the freshest and tastiest Vietnamese dishes in the City. I like the upscale feel of the interior and wish the outside would match - might go a long way in luring customers in, though it was more crowded than I have ever seen any other Milwaukee Vietnamese restaurant at lunchtime so they may not need it.

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  2. Great review. Pho 27 has been on my "to try" list for awhile now and your descriptions have motivated me to check it out in the very near future. I was quite disappointed with the Vietnamese restaurant next door the Pacific Produce; their pho broth was clearly from a can - such a letdown! The joy of pho is savoring the rich, meaty broth and it sounds like that is what you experienced. Lovely pictures!

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