This small, plainly outfitted restaurant in Amherst's Burlington Plaza offers one of the broadest menu of Vietnamese dishes in Western New York.
Most of them will be familiar to fans of Vietnamese cuisine, but Pho Saigon's offerings might expand your horizons. If you've been looking for frog legs, catfish steaks or quail, stop by. It's a casual place, no tablecloths and paper napkins, but it's reasonably priced enough to order an extra dish for the table to explore.
Appetizers include the usual fresh spring rolls, with rice paper wrapped around noodles, bean sprouts and herbs ($2), and fried Vietnamese egg rolls ($2). We tried egg rolls and found them decent but not as crispy as our favorite version, at 99 Fast Food on Bailey Avenue. The filling of dried shrimp, pork, cabbage and onion was mushier, too.
But another appetizer, the unfortunately named Grilled Pork Paste ($2.50), was a hit at our table. It's a hotdog-shaped piece of finely textured seasoned meat that looked like it had been dropped in a deep fryer, not grilled. Still, wrapped in a bit of accompanying lettuce and dipped in sweetened nuoc cham fish sauce, it was like an exotic skinless frankfurter.
Other appetizers include the Vietnamese Pancake, a rice flour crepe loaded with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and more ($8.75). The House Special Wings ($6) were satisfyingly crispy from a toss in flour, salt and pepper before frying, then getting stir-fried a touch more in a wok with more spices, onions and green bell peppers. The vegetables added another dimension of crunch and vitamins to the dish.
There's a swath of Thai dishes on the menu, like tom yum soup, grilled beef salad and coconut curries, as well as Japanese, teriyaki dishes such as Shrimp Teriyaki ($9.49). It was shrimp, broccoli, green pepper, onion and bean sprouts in sweet garlicky ginger sauce, pleasing except for a dearth of shrimp.
Another Thai-leaning stir-fry dish we tried was Sweet and Sour Basil with Tofu ($7.25). The cubed soybean curd was fried first, giving it more texture before it was tumbled with sweet soy, broccoli, zucchini, tomato and licorice-tinged Thai basil.
One of my kids' favorite Vietnamese dishes is the grilled pork on rice at 99 Fast Food. The closest we could come on Pho Saigon's menu was the Grilled Pork Chop on Rice ($7.25). It's a plate of rice topped with thinly sliced pork chops that have been marinated and grilled, topped with fried scallions and joined by a few cucumber slices. It was tasty but chewier than 99's.
The rice plates include Chicken with Pepper-Lemongrass ($7.49), which was enjoyable on a prior visit. "Bun" dishes, stuff tossed with herbs, rice noodles and crushed peanuts, are also here in abundance. The Grilled Pork, Shrimp and Egg roll ($9.25) offered a satisfying variety of tastes and textures in a relatively light dish.
Of course, no Vietnamese place would be found without pho, the national dish of beef broth, rice noodles and various types of beef, augmented with fresh herbs and bean sprouts. It's here ($6.99, $7.99) in multiple styles, including chicken, shrimp and meatball.
But on weekends, you can also order Bun Bo Hue ($7.99), another style of beef noodle soup with origins in Vietnam's former imperial city. Overall it's a heartier soup. The broth is brick-red, with chile, lemongrass and fried shallots adding heat and aroma. The noodles are thicker, more like spaghetti than pho noodles. Plentiful stewed beef and Vietnamese cold cuts were in the bowl too, and a plate of shredded cabbage and bean sprouts added crunch.
There's crispy duck ($15.95) and Peking duck ($15.95) on the specials list, Thai-style hotpot ($24.49 for two), and deep-fried whole fish. Another Vietnamese classic you won't see much around here was Catfish in Baked Bowl ($12.95), a caramel-braised, or "kho" dish.
Catfish steaks are simmered with caramel broth in a clay pot with ginger and aromatics. The result is rich, sweet and savory, an excellent topping for a pile of rice.
Service was not exactly swift, but adequate. It's not a big place, so a wave got our server's attention quickly.
There's lots to explore on Pho Saigon's menu, and plenty of choices that will make you feel, for a few minutes, that you're far away from Niagara Falls Boulevard.
DESCRIPTION: Casual restaurant offers broad menu of Vietnamese dishes.
WHERE: 1551 Niagara Falls Blvd. (Burlington Plaza), Amherst (834-8889).
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2-$8.75; entrees, $6.99-$15.95.
PARKING: In the lot. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.