SARASOTA -- Pho Cali Noodle House on Main Street is, in a sense, everyone’s home. It is hard to find anyone who has not eaten here at least a dozen times.
And for many of us, it’s is a weekly staple.
Forget ambience and let’s just get down to what it is – the best Vietnamese in town.
When they were closed for building reconstruction, their fans wandered Main Street as if there were no other places nearby. The other places just weren’t ones we think of as home.
Patrons often joke there is something in the food that makes it addictive, and there is -- love and freshness coming from Chef Kim, who is also the owner, alongside her husband, Harrison.
Patrons are known by their numbers and mine is 79. No. 79 is my standard, a rice noddle salad with grilled pork seasoned with hints of lemongrass atop shredded lettuce, cold rice noodles, marinated shredded carrots, ground peanuts and fresh Vietnamese mint.
The No. 8, a winner for Best Appetizer from Sarasota Magazine, is what I call my special appetizer cheat. The pork and shrimp Vietnamese pancake (10.95), easily serves two. It’s a pan-fried Vietnamese egg crepe stuffed with shrimp, roast pork and bean sprouts. To enjoy best, tear apart a piece with your hands, add curly green lettuce, shredded cucumbers and the sweet house sauce. This is a two-napkin appetizer with great flavor.
The numbers of dishes run over 100 easily and some guests have been known to just go down the menu in order. Others use their smart phones to select a random number. For me, I am a bit of a conformist. When not ordering the No. 79, I might lean towards the lotus salad with chilled sliced pork and shrimp, crisp fried shallots and mint. The dish is light but has an abundance of flavor.
Lunch specials such as the lemongrass chicken can be prepared extra spicy if you prefer. Vegans and vegetarians have dozens of options such as pan fried tofu with simmered eggplant and lemongrass tofu with chilies and onions.
But let’s get down to the Pho (pronounced Pha). On a recent chilly and windy night the place had a line down the street of patrons risking the Florida cold for a coveted seat of steaming hot soups.
The soups include the No. 39 Special Combo - rare steak, rough brisket, flank, tendon and tripe in a robust broth made with five-spice and star anise (11.95); and a No. 50, which consists of sliced rare steak and Vietnamese beef meatballs ($11.95)
Personally, I am more a No. 61 type -- wontons (Pork & Shrimp) and roast pork / ($11.50). These jumbo steaming bowls come with sliced jalapeno, Thai basil and lime to enhance the already flavorful homemade stock.
Of course there are some easily recognized dishes, such as roast pork fried rice and an amazing interpretation of shrimp pad Thai, all equally as delicious.
You know you have found an authentic restaurant when you look around on a Monday or Tuesday lunch or dinner and find all the top chefs in town sitting at a table filled with steaming bowls of Pho, crispy roasted quail and make-your-own rolls. Here one example: The No. 104 -- shrimp paste on sugarcane and grilled pork meatballs (19.95), served with a side dish of vermicelli, lettuce, mint, cucumber and house sauce along with rice papers. It takes some practice to roll your own but don’t worry, they can roll them for you as well.
Pho Cali is my comfort zone and a regular stop every week. If you plan to visit, I have to warn you: You just might become addicted to a No. 79.
Streets: Main and Orange
Cuisine(s): Asian, Kid-Friendly, Seafood, Soups, Vegetarian, Vietnamese
Hours: Mon-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri/Sat 11-an-9:30pm (closed 4-5pm), Closed Sun
1578 Main St.
Sarasota, FL 34236