Z: Introduced to Pho 21 by our friends Lionel and Diana, we were delighted to see the words "Noodle, Grill and Vegan House" beneath the outdoor sign. Though the restaurant is not totally vegan, it offers 22 exceptional vegan items on the extensive menu. Because the menu offers both vegan and non-vegan items, it's easy to bring non-vegetarian friends to this eatery where they can feel comfortable with their food choices.
R: In daytime, bright light streams into the restaurant from large floor-to-ceiling windows that face busy Sherman Way, while plenty of indoor lighting keeps the restaurant cheery and well lit during dinner hours. Gracing the lavender tinted walls are baskets brimming with silk flowers, a large Kincaid-style painting, and a giant mirror dominating the east wall.
Z: While the furnishings of dark wooden chairs, glass-top tables, and mottled beige floor tiles reflect the urban California scene, large color food photos and a small, standing golden Buddha with his arms upraised hint at the family's Vietnamese origins. Another Asian feature is the plethora of color food photos embedded in the menu, making choices easier. Fortunately, the menu items were also numbered for easy identification.
R: What became truly apparent was the tasteful blending of cultures. The foods are distinctly Vietnamese, the ambience and music are definitively American, making the experience an appealing cultural fusion.
Z: Tony, the youngest of three Tran children, made some excellent suggestions for our first visit to the restaurant. We began with #2, rice-paper wrapped Vegetarian Spring Rolls filled with rice noodles, lettuce, shredded carrots, mint, and shredded daikon. The two rolls, which we cut in half, were served on a square white dish accompanied with a shapely little bowl of light and tangy, lime-infused peanut sauce for dipping.
R: The giant bowl of #4 Vegetarian Pho served next was a well-seasoned chicken-style broth packed with colorful vegetables, rice noodles, and tofu and accompanied with a platter of bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos, lime wedges, and sprigs of fresh basil and mint leaves. This colossal Pho was a meal in itself, but sharing gave each of us a generous taste. Curious to try the #10 Vegetarian Flour Crepe, we shared this jumbo-size, crisply fried, golden crepe folded over a heaping serving of sautéed bean sprouts. The crepe was served with a clear sauce and a platter of curly lettuce leaves, sprigs of mint and basil, and shredded carrots and daikon.
Z: We've met the Vietnamese crepe before and demonstrated to our friends how to place a portion of the crepe into the center of the lettuce, top it with basil and mint leaves, and drizzle a spoonful of sauce over the top. Then, we folded the lettuce leaf over the crepe like a wrap and nibbled away. The feast continued with #18, a hot pot of faux pork and shrimp with rice on the side. This specialty was highly seasoned and had a deliciously spicy edge.
R: Because we found the foods and the friendly family service so engaging, we came back to taste more of the exceptional vegan offerings, this time with our friends Joan and Larry. On this visit, Tommy, Tony's brother, was our vivacious server and guided us with detailed descriptions of unfamiliar menu items. We were well acquainted with white rice and brown rice, but Tommy explained broken rice was a variety of white rice with individual grains that were drier and stayed separated, rather than sticking together like the white rice so many Asian restaurants serve.
Z: The #10 Vegetarian Flour Crepe was such a fun experience, we ordered it again for sharing. It was a big hit this time, as well. We explored the #18 with the fish option (Vegetarian Imitation Salted Braised Fish or Shrimp and Pork) served in steaming hot aluminum bowl placed on a white dish. The flavor of the fish resembled salmon and even looked like salmon, with nori standing in for the dark skin wrapped around the edge of each slice. This "fish" was cooked with sliced scallions in a richly seasoned, saffron hued broth, infused with soy sauce.
R: Vegetarian Stir Fried Imitation Chicken, #20, made from tofu skin tightly rolled into one-inch balls, was the focus of a zesty stir-fry made with lemon grass, coarsely chopped onions, and hot peppers cooked in a chili sauce. Delectably savory and lightly spiced, these little "chicken" rolls were so succulent there were only a few left for us to bring home to nibble next day. This dish offered alternate choices of beef, pork, or shrimp in place of the chicken.
Z: The highlight of this meal for all of us was the #15 Vegetarian Imitation Fish with Vegetable in a Sweet Sour Hot Pot. Served in a large aluminum bowl elevated over a flaming warmer, this entree featured a tangy sweet, sour, and savory broth with generous chunks of okra, pineapple, carrots, bean sprouts, white imitation fish, herbs, and an unusual vegetable we were unable to identify. The broth was so flavorful we each spooned out a second bowl to enjoy.
R: Because we were such an enthusiastic group, Tommy introduced us to his father, Thao Tran, who was happy to share his impressive experience as one of the boat people who left Vietnam during the war. In search of a better life, he and his wife, Huong, who is the chef, were separated for nine years while he traveled and worked his way to the U.S. Over the years they have opened and operated three other restaurants.
Z: Because Mama Huong, a tiny woman with a big smile, was anxious to offer vegan foods on the menu, she traveled to Vietnam and spent three months cooking for monks in Buddhist temples. There she learned to prepare authentic Vietnamese vegan dishes. The monks in Vietnam must have been sad to see her leave. Now we're the fortunate ones who can enjoy her kitchen craft and a taste of Vietnam.
R: Vegan diners will be very pleased with the reasonable prices. We were able to enjoy an extraordinary banquet without denting my wallet. Appetizers are $5.25 to $5.95, Entrees range from $5.95 to $8.50. Be sure to check out the unique Beverages portion of the menu. This section features Smoothies, Coffees, Iced and Hot Tea varieties, and even Boba or Flavored Jelly. Beverages range from $1.50 to $3.50.
Pho 21 Noodle, Grill and Vegan House
Reviewed July 2011