Bowl You Over

[nggallery id=44 images=1]Traditional Vietnamese cuisine is a rare find in Jax.

Of all the various incarnations of popular Asian eats, Vietnamese is probably the least represented in Northeast Florida. Sushi bars, Mongolian barbecues, Thai and Chinese restaurants. Check. Outlets for fare from Vietnam are few. Bowl of Pho is an exception.The restaurant is located in the shopping center at the intersection of Baymeadows Road and Southside Boulevard. It’s a small place, with about 20 tables sprinkled around one room. An Asian ambiance is achieved through bamboo accents and a circular art element lighting one wall.

The menu is a long one. From appetizers to salads to beef noodle soups to chef specials, there are more than 70 items. The beverage list runs 21 choices, and it doesn’t include beer, wine or liquor. Soy bean drink, egg yolk with soda, sweet and salty kumquat soda—there are some unusual options.Waiting on each table is an assortment of condiments such as hoisin sauce and hot chili sauce, as well as a paper napkin dispenser, packages of wrapped chop sticks, small clear glass bowls and white ceramic spoons. Note to management: cloth napkins would be a welcome addition, and fitting for the quality of food and environment.

In a nutshell, pho is the name given to Vietnamese rice noodle soup, of which there are near-endless variations using beef or chicken broth. What is added to the broth is where a chef and diner can get creative. Sliced beef, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatballs are among Bowl of Pho’s meaty options, which one may season with green onions, jalapeno, cilantro, hot chili sauce and saw-leaf herbs.Prior to your soup arriving, a server will place a heaping plate of fresh bean sprouts, stalks of basil and lime wedges. This is not a salad. The veggies and herbs are to be added to the soup and you get to decide how much or how little.

Soup selections number more than 30; most have a beef broth base. Others range from barbecue pork with egg noodles (mi xa xu, $7.25) to seafood rice noodle soup (hu tie do bien, $7.95). The nam vang style soup ($7.95) is a melange of sliced and ground pork, shrimp, squid and boiled quail eggs.

The spring rolls (goi cuon, $3.50) appetizer is a winner, with bits of shrimp, pork, rice, lettuce, sprouts, cucumber and cilantro rolled tight in rice paper. The fried crispy dumplings (hoanh thanh chien gion, $5.95) stuffed with ground pork and shrimp is a more filling starter.

Among the chef’s specials we have tried is the shaken beef (com bo luc lac, $11.95), described as "cube tenderloin shaken to perfection with sweet onion in our house special sauce." It’s served with a choice of fried or steamed rice. We have to admit, it is "shaken" just about perfect. The crispy crepe à la Vietnam (banh xeo, $10.95) is a mix of shrimp, pork, chicken and bean sprouts folded into an omelet of sorts and slow-fried. We haven’t had this one yet. Perhaps next time.

Watch and Learn: Never eaten a steaming bowl of pho? You’re not alone. Scan the dining room and look for another diner who knows his noodles. The first rule is don’t be timid. Dive in. Use the white spoons on the table to assist in corralling the noodles. Pick up the bowl and slurp the broth as you finish. Politely, of course. You’ll fit right in.
Hold the Heat: Traditional Vietnamese cuisine is not spicy hot like, say, Thai. Some dishes pack a punch to the palette, but most are relatively mild. Sriracha and chili sauce are on the table for you to make it as hot as you like.Gosh Darn Cheap: Only about a half-dozen entrées on the menu are priced over $10, most are in the $8 range.
Bubbles?: For dessert ask for an order of bubble tea to go. Cool, tasty and just a little weird.

Bowl of Pho
9902 Old Baymeadows Rd.

Hours: 11 AM-9 PM, Mon., Wed., Thurs. and Sun.; 11 AM-10 PM, Fri. and Sat.