The setting is charming -- two serene, uncluttered areas separated by arches, with sand-coloured walls sparely adorned by black and white photographs of Winnipeg. It may not look like your idea of a Vietnamese restaurant, but that's what it is. And although the odds on getting good food in any of them are better than even, some Vietnamese restaurants are superior to others, and Pho Binh Minh is one of them.
Some of the dishes evoked a sense of deja vu, inspiring me to ask if this was the family's first restaurant. No, we were told, at one time they had owned Trieu Chau -- a personal favourite that closed about five years ago. Now owner-chef Ca Huynh has resurfaced in this quieter, west-of-Arlington part of Sargent, with the added advantage of a parking lot. And she's lost none of her skills -- 41/2 stars then, 41/2 stars now.
The prices are a steal for the quality, with most items from $7.50 to $11.50. The menu, like most Vietnamese menus, goes on and on, but many of the dishes are variations on a theme, or combination platters, with, as well, several vegetarian versions. There are also Chinese dishes that I didn't try, since most are of the standard takeout variety -- my one sample was a hot-sour soup which was thick with good ingredients, but also with glutinous starch.
No, what I'd come for was Vietnamese food, and it was wonderful.
The superb banh xao, for instance, a flawless, crisp crepe -- pale golden with turmeric and scented with coconut milk -- that looked too fragile (but wasn't) to hold the filling of shrimp and bean sprouts. Bundle pieces of it with the pickled veggies and herbs in romaine leaves and dip them into the clear, tangy-sweet nuoc cham fish sauce.
The green mango salad was another stunner, mounded with finely slivered vegetables, shrimp and chicken, moistened by a fish sauce dressing, and garnished with shrimp-flavoured rice crackers (those who like spicier seasoning should opt for the green papaya salad).
Pork-stuffed spring rolls were crisp and hot, with not a trace of grease. Shrimp and pork salad rolls were less satisfying, overwhelmed by too much vermicelli -- the only disappointment among the many dishes sampled.
There were no disappointments among the soups, though. The namesake pho is a cilantro-sprinkled, slightly sweet beef stock, to be filled with rice noodles and heaps of beef -- rare, flank, tendon, balls, tripe and/or all the above, and seasoned if wished with lime juice and/or hot sauce. But there's more than just phos. One increasingly rare pleasure is the phnom penh noodle soup, based on chicken broth, and topped by a crisp crepe pierced by a single shrimp.
Another great choice is sweet and sour soup, also based on chicken broth (the sweet is from pineapple, the sour from tamarind) -- the pale chunks of tomato were an off-note, but the shrimp were plump and juicy, the bean sprouts fresh and crunchy and the basil fresh and fragrant. Also (unlike an increasingly frequent practice) celery wasn't used as a substitute for bac ha, the fascinating spongy-crisp slices of taro stem.
The grilled meats can be ordered individually, or on a combo platter, which you can either share or hoard for yourself. I enjoyed the vermicelli bowl more than most, mainly because, unlike the often cold, flavourless noodles, these were warm, moist and tasty, drizzled with fish sauce and topped by one or more of the meats -- marinated beef, pork or chicken, a thin, almost caramelized pork chop; or (possibly best of all, at least for me) slices of the garlicky, herb-infused charbroiled pork balls. Also, optional, a soft-yolked fried egg on top.
Fried chicken on rice may sound mundane but it isn't. Neither breaded nor battered, these flattened, marinated chunks are tender and moist under a sweetish, gingery glaze. They come bedded on either plain or fried rice -- opt for the latter, which differs from the Chinese variety mainly by the use of fish sauce instead of soy. The same seasoning also made our beef ho fan Vietnamese (and lighter than the Chinese version), with comfortingly soft flat rice noodles, tender slices of beef and gai lan.
I always look for curried chicken on Vietnamese menus, but I don't always find It. One kind -- made with boneless slices of chicken breast -- is listed on some menus, but the one I prefer is usually found, if found at all, near the appetizers, with the banh mi sandwiches. I almost missed it here because it is even more effectively hidden in a tiny section after the vegetarian dishes, almost at the end of the menu.
Actually, it was more of a soup than the stew I've most often had, and without the usual potatoes, but light and luscious, fragrant with notes of lemongrass, with (unlike Indian or Thai curries) only a tickle of heat -- with it a baguette to sop it up. Another rarity (also hidden near the end of the menu) is frogs' legs, prepared either as a curry or, like ours, with lemongrass, onions and flecks of chili. Not so much to my taste, actually, but my friends loved it.
As always, we finished with the fabulous Vietnamese iced coffee. The service was wonderful -- not just attentive and familiar with every item on the menu, but obliging about making changes to the combos, and offering helpful guidance. Servers in some high-end establishments could take lessons.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.