Culture clash at Pho Hiep Hoa

crispy fish

WORLD ON A PLATE — Tucked away amid a bevy of corporate restaurants such as the Macaroni Grill and Red Lobster on the Ellsworth shopping strip in downtown Silver Spring is the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Hiep Hoa.

The placement of the restaurant is ironic. Pho Hiep Hoa offers an excess of culture among a sea of corporate sameness.

“Vietnam is a melting pot of cultures,” says Food Manager Amy Nguyen, adding “Our food is influenced by so many different countries.”

Indeed, Vietnam is surrounded by such culinary heavyweights as Thailand and China. Mix in a strong French colonial influence and you have a witch’s cauldron of inspiration.

This bonanza of cultures is evident in the diverse aesthetic of the restaurant. For instance the service bar is lined with Greek white columns. An elaborate crystal chandelier, that would be comfortable in any French chateau, dominates the dining room. Conversely, the artwork along the walls is Chinese and the ornate glass that rests above a row of mahogany wooden panels illustrate a classic Asian diorama — exotic birds resting on the frail limbs of the jungle. When combined, this
funky juxtaposition of cultures conveys a quirky kind of post colonial refinement.

Of course the mix of cultures goes beyond the furnishing of the restaurant. One glance through the six page menu and your head will be swimming. There are well over forty entrees.

And at first glance one begins to wonder: is Pho Hiep Hoa a kind of one-stop shopping Asian restaurant?  “That’s just the way Vietnamese cooking is. We’ve been influenced by everyone and we’ve taken their dishes and over time made them our own,” says Amy.

A great example of this is the old Chinese standby Sweet and Sour Chicken. Instead of the over-breaded, greasy lumps of sparse brown meat you’re used to eating, Pho Hiep Hoa takes Sweet and Sour Chicken to another level. Here they take large chunks of mouthwatering breast meat, dust them with flour and sear the juices in hot. Then they coat the meat in a sweet, garlicky sauce with just a touch of tang. The result is a dish so complex it will force you to reconsider what “sweet and sour” really means.

Of course, Pho Hiep Hoa is much more than this; their Pho–classic Vietnamese beef stock based soups–are top notch. This comes as no surprise: the owner, Vui Nguyen, worked as a chef for years at Pho Hoa, a Vietnamese restaurant revered world wide for its Pho.

“We cook our stock for around 14 hours. That’s the secret, you have to take your time to make good Pho,” says Amy.

And the Pho is very good. My favorite version is served with thinly sliced flank steak. I like to sprinkle in some bean sprouts, a dash of Hoisin sauce, a dollop of incredibly hot Sriracha sauce, a squirt of lime and voila! Perfection.

If you’ve had your fill of Pho and want to get more inventive try the Caramel Fish. Amy suggested this dish to me and I was blown away by the flavor and texture of the fish which was ultra moist and saturated in a tangy, sweet sauce that exploded in my mouth.

All of these dishes are very good and you would be more than satisfied with any one of them, but if you really want the Vietnamese experience you have to order one of Pho Hiep Hoa’s fresh whole fried fish.

They take the fish, slice it three times along its flank, roll it in a flour and egg bath and then fry the fish whole. A slight pull of the fork produces a chunk of steaming white, succulent meat. Now drop the hot meat into the pungent, sweet and spicy ginger sauce and you have experienced Vietnamese food at its best.

Pho Hiep Hoa is open seven days a week from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. On Fridays they are open until 11 p.m. They are located at 921-G Ellsworth Drive, Silver Spring, MD. 20910. For more information call 301- -588-5808.

— by Will Marshall
photo by Eric Bond