If you’re a restaurateur selling anything but Yankee cuisine in Boston, you’ll face some inevitable tradeoffs. Classic bouillabaisse? The canonical Marseille trash fishes aren’t available here. New York-style bagels? The crystalline waters of the Quabbin lack that ineffable something. And get too far from Savin Hill, and your Vietnamese cooking will have to dial down the fermented flavors to accommodate timid American tastes. At least that’s the calculus apparently made by the owners of Pho Countryside, a new Vietnamese restaurant in Kenmore Square, sibling of the Quincy original. Your satisfaction with the place likely depends on how much you agree with that decision.
For instance, Vietnamese-style shrimp and pork salad ($11.50) is fresh and light with its base of shredded cabbage and quick pickles of carrots and daikon sprinkled with chopped peanuts and mint, crowned with fat shrimp and pale slices of pork and dressed with nuoc cham, a clear, sugary dressing. A more traditional joint would include a hefty dose of fish sauce in that dressing, but here, its unmistakable fermented-anchovy whiff is largely absent. The roll-your-own fresh rolls plate Banh Hoi Countryside ($15.50) is a fun bit of tabletop interactivity. Dip a stiff disk of dried rice paper in the accompanying hot-water bath to soften it to floppy tenderness, plop on a rectangle of woven rice vermicelli topped with chopped scallions and peanuts, add a bit of protein—the plate includes a generous array of grilled pork, shrimp, surimi-shrimp patties and pork patties, plus crunchy sliced fried spring rolls. Now layer in fresh herbs like shiso and mint, fold the ends over and roll it up like a burrito, wrap the result in a lettuce leaf and dip it in more nuoc cham. Voila: a flavorful, textural delight. But that funky, umami-rich fish-sauce note still goes missing.
It’s hard to complain about marinated roast quail ($10.50), lovely little chunks of slightly bony bird in a dark, sweet sauce. Banh xeo ($11.95), the hefty Vietnamese crepe of rice flour tinted egg-yellow with turmeric and filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, is another dish of which to wrap pieces in lettuce leaves with herbs and lightly pickled vegetables, again with that sweet, bland dip. Listed under side dishes, the excellent pork-egg custard (a steal for $3) is actually cha trung hap, a sort of country pâté of ground pork, cellophane noodles and wood-ear fungus bound up with egg: surprisingly traditional, savory and fine.
Of the many variations of pho (all $9.95), we opted for pho tai bo vien ($9.95), its mild broth with faint notes of cinnamon and star anise floating a pile of skinny rice noodles, scallions, onions, cilantro, beef meatballs and wafery slices of eye round beef, with a side plate of impeccable basil, bean sprouts and lime to add to taste. The meatballs, with visible chunks of springy white tendon, are abundant, delectable and pleasantly coarse enough to avoid the usual rubbery texture. But the broth lacks the roasted-aromatics accents and bone-stock depth of its Dorchester betters. Braised catfish and pork ($14.95) features caramel-sauced chunks of boneless pork and nice, not-too-bony center fillets of catfish; get some rice to cushion its sweet-and-salty impact. A live-tank lobster stir-fried with ginger and scallions ($24.95 for one lobster) requires some work to dig the meat out of the crudely cracked crustacean, and the chicken-stock sauce is so wimpy it barely registers.
The kitchen’s unqualified showstopper is goat hot pot ($35.95 small, $45.95 large), a big vessel of nearly opaque, golden-brown broth redolent of ginger, lemongrass and garlic, bubbling atop a gel-fuel burner, loaded with goat meat, offal and starchy chunks of taro, with a plate of cabbage and greens to quick-cook a little at a time, plus a big tangle of skinny, chewy egg noodles to add at the end. The smaller one could make a hearty meal for four with a couple of apps, though one wonders where the advertised side of fermented-tofu sauce went. Too square to dig the Vietnamese dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant? There are American-Chinese familiarities like a pupu platter, scallion pancakes, crab rangoon and General Gau’s chicken. Beverage options include a variety of good Vietnamese coffees, teas, salty/tangy soft drinks ($4.50-$4.95) and fruit smoothies ($4.95). Stronger drinks include 10 beers ($4.50-$7.95), a handful of cordials and flavored spirits, some modest sakes and sojus and a dozen plonky wines, though a couple of months in, they haven’t assembled a list for them.
Ultimately, Pho Countryside has its undeniable pleasures: a value-priced menu with more than 130 options, affable service, two attractive dining rooms (the upstairs one with a comfy little bar), a small sunken patio and a location convenient to Fenway and the Lansdowne clubs. A big meal here still delivers that magical Vietnamese quality of feeling stuffed yet blissful, not bloated. But if you’re the type of food geek who hopes to scent the heady, slightly stinky, old-country fragrances of fish sauce and fermented seafood pastes the moment you walk in, you’ll have to head down toward Fields Corner, or to nearby spots like Tiger Mama, where the chefs aren’t afraid to let those essential flavors sing. Set your expectations accordingly.
-Banh Hoi Countryside
-Marinated roast quail
-Pho tai bo vien
-Goat hot pot
Pho Countryside 468 Comm. Ave., Boston (857-990-3679) phocountrysidema.com
Hours: 10:30 am-10:30 pm, daily
Parking: Metered street spaces
Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials