Located in the former home of Tom+Chee, Pho Cafe opened last month under the reins of Louisville restaurant veteran Tuan Phan, who previously worked for Asiatique and Dish on Market.
The space is clean and bright, with red booths and dark wood accents in dining areas, plus a wall added to separate diners from the buzzing kitchen area.
My friend J.K. and I stopped in for lunch and were seated quickly, with silverware and menus placed promptly on the table.
The menu focuses, of course, on Vietnamese noodle dishes, with a few appetizers, a house salad with a few options, fried rice, and wok creations. While the menu isn’t particularly huge, it was nevertheless difficult to decide what we wanted.
That being the case, we started with an order of crispy dumplings, a Pho Cafe wonton dish.
Five hand-rolled dumplings quickly came to the table with a side of scallion soy sauce; they were indeed fried crispy and brown, and packed with spicy pork, onions, cabbage and shrimp. The flavor of these dumplings was quite good, and I must admit it was the first time I ever have eaten a wonton and found a whole, plump shrimp tail inside. I assumed the shrimp would be minced like the pork.
J.K. finally decided on a sweet chili salad with tofu and chicken fried rice, while I opted for the Chef’s Special wok noodles. Before ordering, J.K. asked if the salad would be enough for a meal, and our server said she didn’t think so.
Noting that, when our food arrived maybe 10 minutes later, we both were surprised by the size of the salad, especially for the reasonable $7.50 price. For lunch, that definitely would make a decent-size meal, especially if meat is added. The salad features fresh mixed greens, along with shredded carrots, red onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, crushed peanuts and cilantro, with several slabs of tofu on top.
J.K. shared a piece of tofu, which was lightly fried and brought with it several pieces of peanut. But the orange-colored, sweet chili dressing — which looks a lot like the ginger dressing one finds at sushi bars — was the knockout punch. I could have drunk the stuff with a straw.
His fried rice also was a healthy portion, with plenty of chunks of fresh chicken, plus bean sprouts, onions and egg. After a few bites of that, J.K. decided to stick with the salad and save the rice for another meal, but once the salad was depleted, he kept sneaking bites.
“I can’t stop eating this rice,” he muttered at one point.
My wok dish was equally impressive, with plenty of chicken and egg, plus a variety of vegetables — bean sprouts, celery, scallions and more — blended with thin noodles in a lightly spicy yellow curry.
And try as I might, I couldn’t come close to finishing the delicious dish, which was bursting with curry flavor and tender chicken. I had enough left for a small meal later, making the $11 price tag a relative bargain.
Between friendly service, a pleasant presentation and a laid-back, casual atmosphere, Pho Cafe was a hit, at least on a first try. And it’s a fine addition to the strip of sushi places, high-end cafes and pub-grub establishments in that area.
Pho Cafe, located at 1704 Bardstown Road, is open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.