A bowl of pho presents itself with the familiarity of an old friend intertwined with the mystery of a new lover. The broth — whether an austere northern Vietnam variety or the bodacious southern style — is the soul of the dish. A chorus of crushed large black cardamom pods, star anise, cloves, shallots, ginger, and cassia create the comforting aroma. The umami flavor of Vietnamese fish sauce provides balance. Even before the chef ladles in the rice noodles, slivers of beef and onions, the fate of the soup is set. At first sip, either it is brilliantly simple, or simply brilliant. Friend or lover.
Of course, that preference is individual. But there is no denying that the southern spin on pho with its razzle dazzle of herbs, citrus, even tripe, would make anyone fall in love all over again.
Such is the pho found at restaurateur Nhi Nguyen's Saigon Bay Vietnamese Cuisine that opened in October 2014 in the University area. While the pho is complex, the place is simple. A long fully stocked bar stretches along one side separated from the small dining area on the other. The menu features those ubiquitous dishes of the Vietnamese diaspora. Charlotte is lucky to have a large Vietnamese ex-pat community that is new enough to be spread out throughout the city instead of existing in restrictive 1970's- era Little Saigon enclave.
In Charlotte, pho depots flourish across town. But Saigon Bay offers a more extensive menu that is as streamlined as the space: hot pots and crepes; stir fries and soups; vegetarian dishes and fried bananas; lychee martinis and Lucky Buddha beer.
The grilled pork summer roll is unfailingly fresh and quickly disappears. The Bun Dac Biet offers a perfectly crisp fried summer roll, plump sweet shrimp and slices of char-grilled pork bobbing in the pool of vermicelli. The kitchen's exacting touch extends to the spicy, but flavorful lemongrass chicken. For those who can not get enough goat, there is Lau De, or a goat hot pot. And then there's the pho. Luckily you can order the child's portion (the other sizes are regular and large) which is an adequate size if you want to pair it with an entrée.
In a town becoming populated with fashionable melded-Asian spots with food more pleasant to look at than to eat, this kind of mom and pop cooking has its charms and its rewards. Many entrees are less than ten bucks, and hot pots are around $30 and feed three. So while Saigon Bay may not have loquacious servers, these servers will most certainly flash a friendly smile when you attempt to say Ga Xao Xa Ot rather than order by the number. And that's the kind of place I prefer anyway.