Chinese cuisine has been popular for ages, Japanese has seen its golden years, Thai has had its share of the spotlight. The sun is rising on a new successor to the throne, the new king of the Asian foodscape…to which I say, “Good morning, Vietnam.” Central Arkansas is no stranger to Vietnamese cuisine as we are fortunate to have a handful of decent options, but there’s definitely room for more. I’ve been hearing about Pho Thanh My for a few months now, so I decided it was time to pay them a visit. Thanh My is rather inconspicuously located on a nondescript stretch of Shackleford in Little Rock. The building is not showy, nothing eye-catching. Oddly, it sits in what appears to be a small cleared-out field of towering bamboo…not the usual foliage you’d expect when your neighbors include a Famous Dave’s, Ramada Inn, and Kroger. Despite its rather lackluster exterior, the food within sings of Saigon. This is a song of light, aromatic food, contrasting temperatures, vibrant color, and sensual spice. It’s a song that once heard, it will not soon be forgotten.
Perhaps nothing says Vietnam better than a steaming bowl of pho, indeed this may be the single best opportunity for those less familiar with Vietnamese cuisine to get a taste of what it’s all about. Pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup, is a spectacular spread of flavor and texture. Great pho is an amalgamation of a handful of ingredients, steeped in a boiling bowl of beef broth—it is the quality of this broth that truly sets a great Vietnamese noodle house apart from the mediocre. Typically, this broth is prepared by simmering beef bones, onion, ginger, and other spices for a long while, often several hours, until the beef fat is slowly leached out imparting a rich, meaty flavor to the liquid. Thanh My does a respectable job with its broth. A bowl of pho comes to you steaming like an angry geyser, small droplets of yellow-gold melted beef fat dancing along the surface of the brown broth. Some may find the overall flavor to be slightly under-seasoned, especially compared to our American canned-soup standards, but I enjoy a bowl of pho that relies as much on its ingredients for flavoring as it does on its salt content. Thanh My offers fifteen varieties of pho with an assortment of protein options that includes steak, brisket, beef tendon, chicken, tripe, meatball, and beef flank. The steak or flank are safe choices—they’re added to the broth late in the process, still rare and succulent, and continue to cook in the steaming liquid as they reach your table. Don’t be intimidated by the thought of beef tendon. While it’s no secret that raw tendon is, well, no good…generally tough and unappetizing, in well-prepared pho it becomes a magical Vietnamese treasure…tender, rendered soft, with a hint of gelatinous chew. Then there are the glorious toppings: shaved red onion, crunchy bean sprouts, scallion, jalapeno, and Thai basil. I prefer to add a few drops of Sriracha to heighten the experience, a touch of spice to cut through the richness of the pho broth. Overall, I was satisfied with the quality of Thanh My’s pho. As expected, the portions are sufficient for the likes of Paul Bunyan, so you may want to bring a friend.
You’ll certainly want to grab one of their fantastic banh mi sandwiches. Banh mi has been popping up on menus all over, no longer limited to the confines of traditional Vietnamese restaurants. This is likely due to their versatility and one’s ability to modify ingredients to suit the tastes of any aspiring, innovative chef. It’s a sandwich that is both familiar and exotic, but Thanh My’s traditional approach and classic construction is one of the finest these lips have wrapped themselves around. They start with a freshly baked baguette… a pillowy soft interior with a flaky, golden crust. I went with the char-glazed pork, a tender, sweetened handful of sliced pig. I was happy to find that they were not greedy with the meat as it was clearly the star of this show. Fresh, raw vegetables joined the glazed pork…the usual players: julienned carrots, thinly sliced cucumber, a handful of cilantro sprigs, and jalapeno. It’s an all-star lineup that works brilliantly. The blend of spicy and sweet, crisp vegetables and soft, warm bread…it’s the sandwich that understandably helped propel Vietnamese street food into the forefront of the American culinary scene.