PARSIPPANY — My last experience with Vietnamese cuisine dates to the late 60s, early 70s, at a time when I was able to indulge in that Country’s fine food thanks to a free, all-expense-paid trip, graciously provided courtesy of the US government. Thank you to the President, “Tricky Dick” Nixon, for that thoughtful consideration.
A visit to Phở Bình Dương, located right off Route 46 West, in Parsippany’s Arlington Plaza Shopping Mall, formerly the site of Saigon Pho, seemed like just the place to reacquaint me with this once exotic cuisine, an integral part of the diverse and complicated culture that is Vietnam. The major influences on Vietnamese cuisine initially developed from neighboring countries, particularly China, as far back as the Han Dynasty, and more recently France, which colonized Vietnam in the late 1800s and remained there until the 1950s. Through it all, scarred by invasions and other hardships, Vietnam prevailed and now lays claim to some of the tastiest, most aromatic, complex, and healthiest food in the world.
Phở Bình Dương references Phở, a soup dish consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat or chicken, and considered Vietnam’s signature dish, and basically a street food; and Bình Dương, a relatively new, emerging, and modern city (Vietnam’s Shiny New City) situated in the Southern part of the Country and once home to owner Quang Tran. What is not unusual, like many Countries, regional cuisine can be quite different between the North, Central, and Southern Provinces of Vietnam.
The relatively newly owned Phở Bình Dương, which changed ownership in 2018, appears from the exterior, despite a welcoming façade, to be just another nondescript storefront business, hardly discernable from the various other similar storefronts lined up along the east side of a large shopping mall. On entry, after being genuinely welcomed at the check-in desk by a very congenial hostess, I found myself immediately seated in a very well-lighted, very clean, spacious, modern-looking, nicely designed, upscale dining room.
The ambiance was attractive throughout; warm, cozy, and comfortable, with multiple wooden tables thoughtfully arranged throughout the dining room, which can comfortably seat up to 130 diners. The decorative wooden beam ceiling, tasteful colorful décor, and stylish lighting feature surely enhance your dining experience. By the way, Phở Bình Dương is BYOB, and the prices are very reasonable. I brought along some Bia Saigon beer which went perfectly with the feast that was to come.
The service was top-notch. Our waiter, Mike, was prompt, attentive, friendly, and helpful. It was clear to see that this restaurant puts an emphasis on customer satisfaction. After speaking with the owner, Quang Tran, I found that this is in fact his business philosophy. Mr. Tran, who I found to be an extremely friendly, knowledgeable, and pleasant man, was nice enough to join us at our table where he related that he came to America in 1979 as one of the “Vietnamese Boat People,” which refers to those who during a humanitarian crisis fled Vietnam by boat and ship following the chaotic end of the Vietnam War in 1975. He learned to speak English (perfectly I might add) and became a classically trained Chef, eventually bringing his culinary knowledge and skills to Bloomfield, where he was a partner in the first Phở Bình Dương restaurant. When I complimented his cooking skills, a modest Mr. Tran, wanted to make sure that his Executive Chef, Vu Cao, was credited with his masterful culinary skills as well. Judging by the food they make an outstanding team.
After looking over the wide-ranging menu, I and my guests chose a selection of appetizers to share, including the Fried Spring Rolls (Chả giò), Crispy Fried Squid (Mực chiên đòn), Pan Fried Crispy Crepe (Bánh Xèo), and Roasted Quails (Chim Cút Rôti). One dish was better than the other! The Spring Rolls were perfectly fried; crispy, juicy, sweet, and savory. The moist and juicy Quail were perfectly roasted and served with caramelized onions (even tried eating some of the small bones as is customary). Fried Squid was excellent, nice mouth-sized pieces of rich, buttery, battered, fried, and sautéed squid, served with a delicious dipping sauce of Thai sweet chili. Finally, the Pan-Fried Crepe, filled with shrimp, mung beans, and bean sprouts, which everyone agreed was delicious. The yin and yang of Asian cuisine were evident throughout with the brilliant balancing of all the different tastes, colors, and textures that were obvious in all the various dishes. I should also mention the appealing presentation of every dish certainly enhanced the entire experience.
A couple of us then started off with a traditional Phở, which is served in beef broth with a side of fresh bean sprouts, basil. I went with the Rare Eye of Round and Brisket Phở (Phở Tái Nạm). I also ordered the small bowl, which appeared to me to be a giant portion. The Phở could easily serve as a meal by itself. It came with a side of bean sprouts, basil, lime & jalapeno pepper, and other garnishings and sauces. Lots of fresh, herbs, vegetables, and other aromatics in this cuisine. The Phở was full of contrasting textures and flavors; the chewy rice noodles, mouth-watering beef, crispy sprouts, and other herbs and spices made for a truly delicious meal. I could see why Phở is so loved in Vietnam and is becoming so popular in America.
For an entrée, I ordered the spicy Sauté Beef with Lemongrass, Onion, and Bell Pepper (Bò Xào Sả Ớt), which came with steamed Jasmine white rice. Again, the beef was tender, tasty, savory, and perfectly blended in with the rest of the dish, and cooked in a house-made sweet/savory sate sauce. Plus, the portions here are large, so be prepared to take some home. This dish was a home run. By now, even though I was more than satiated, Mr. Tran brought out a complimentary serving of Shaken Beef Cubes, sautéed with onions, and deglazed with butter. An absolute mouth-watering taste sensation and definitely on my “must order” list for the next visit.
Not wanting to leave without trying out one of their desserts we all had the Three Colors Dessert (Chè Ba Màu), a colorful treat with mung bean, red bean, jelly, coconut milk, and crushed ice. Cool, creamy, refreshing, and a delightful way to bring this fantastic meal to a conclusion. First time I ever had this, and I would not hesitate to order this spectacular dessert again.
From my visit, I learned that Vietnamese food is a lot more than Phở and spring rolls. The abundant variation and balance of tastes and textures in this cuisine are amazing. I was not aware of what I was missing. Thank you, Quang Tran, Vu Cao, Mike, and the staff at Phở Bình Dương for a great meal and a fun evening. For those of you who already enjoy Vietnamese cuisine, you want to try out Phở Bình Dương if you have not done so already, and for those of you who are looking for your next great dining adventure Phở Bình Dương just might be the place for you.
“The Italians and Spanish, the Chinese and Vietnamese see food as part of a larger, more essential and pleasurable part of daily life. Not as an experience to be collected or bragged about – or as a ritual like filling up a car – but as something else that gives pleasure, like sex or music, or a good nap in the afternoon.” Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)
Phở Bình Dương Vietnamese Restaurant, 744 Route 46 West (in Arlington Plaza), Parsippany. Dine-In, Take Out, Delivery (Grubhub), BYOB. Closed on Monday. Ample Parking. (973) 794-6710 and (973) 794-6711. www.phobinhduong.com
Reprinted from Parsippany Focus Magazine, August 2021. Click here to view.