From the print edition
Customers at Pho restaurant in Santa Ana, southwest of San José, oftentimes don’t need to be told that they’re at the only Vietnamese eatery in Costa Rica. They know, they’ll tell the owners, because they’ve been searching for pho in Costa Rica for years.
The restaurant has received pho lovers ranging from U.S. citizens to Vietnamese experts, anxious to try the much beloved noodle dish that has developed its own cult following in recent years.
“It felt like a lot of pressure to make pho here,” said co-owner Don Prasad. “But it also has been a great time for us.”
The only pho restaurant in Costa Rica is run by couple Prasad of Canada and Agnieszka Kaszuba of Poland (who met, naturally, in Malta). Several months ago, they took over the restaurant, which was formerly called Sweet by Bing Feng (TT, July 8, 2011). The couple has continued serving pho while reinventing many other aspects of the menu.
Prasad, who runs the kitchen, honed his cooking skills years ago in Vancouver. At Pho, he concocts the signature dishes along with other traditional fare from the Southeast Asian country, such as Vietnamese-style eggrolls, crepes and meat skewers.
Most visitors arrive at Pho to check out the restaurant’s namesake meal. Pho consists of rice noodles topped with various green items like mint, bean sprouts and lime. Mix them altogether in a zesty broth and add your choice of shrimp, meat or tofu to find out what makes the meal so popular.
The restaurant offers smaller portions of each pho option, a wise idea for those new to the dish or looking to sample more items on the menu. The only setback: smaller bowls contain only a few pieces of the tender meat that comes in the beef pho.
Lesser-known than pho, the bun plate serves as a respectable rival in the world of Vietnamese cuisine. The recipe uses stringy vermicelli noodles layered with vegetables and pork, shrimp, chicken or tofu. Pour the fish sauce, nuoc cham, on top of it all and enjoy.
For an appetizer, the Vietnamese crepes offer a new perspective on what a crepe can be. Cooking the crepes is an intricate and painstaking endeavor. When ready, they’re delivered crispy and filled with crunchy vegetables inside a bright-yellow wrap. The pork or shrimp eggrolls, covered in a Vietnamese marinade, also give a different spin on what one normally thinks of for an “eggroll.”
Condiments such as a spicy chile sauce or the sweet hoison sauce also add a nice Vietnamese touch to the setting, as do bamboo decorations and a rice paddy hat mounted on the wall.
Prasad and Kaszuba have plans to expand Pho’s menu in the upcoming months to add more traditional Vietnamese choices. The couple is big on experimentation, and recently began testing out Vietnamese coffee, sometimes known as “weasel coffee.” Considered one of the richest-flavored brews in the world, the coffee comes from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a civet. It’s worth tasting and leaves many samplers wondering: “Who came up with this? And more importantly, why does it taste so good?”
Besides the coffee, the drink menu has standard beverages and several innovative choices as well. The cucumber-and-lemon-flavored smoothie has an intriguing taste that grows on you. Pho does not have a liquor license.
Top off a meal with a sweet crepe. Sure, they may not be authentic Asian food, but they turn out to be a luscious way to round out a meal found nowhere else in Costa Rica.
Prices: pho $9-9.50; small pho $5.20; bun $9; appetizers (spring rolls, eggrolls, kabobs) $3.40-$5.25; Vietnamese crepes $6-7.50; dessert crepes $4-5; drinks $1.60-$4 (cucumber smoothie $2.40).
Location: Boulevard Lindora commercial center, behind Scotiabank, Santa Ana-Belén road
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.