October 17, 2012

Grub Notes

Tried and True

Yummy Pho

Truth in Advertising: When Maba Grill closed downtown, across from the Arch, in the space I will always think of as belonging to Guaranteed, I was briefly disheartened before learning that it would soon reopen as Yummy Pho (167 E. Broad St.), also Vietnamese, under basically the same ownership. “Whew,” I thought. “It’s not that people don’t appreciate Asia’s most accessible and possibly most reliably delicious cuisine.” Plus, I’m a strong believer in the power of competition to keep even good restaurants from slacking off.

Just Pho... and More remains as tasty as ever, and there’s plenty of room in this town for two Vietnamese joints, if not for more. In addition to a significantly expanded menu that brings its offerings much closer to Just Pho’s, Yummy Pho has switched from counter to table service. This method doesn’t always work more smoothly, especially if your server neglects to tell you that you need to go up to the counter both to get and to pay your check (you do), but it does avoid the line that could otherwise build up at the register. Servers are efficient and not overly chatty, and your food arrives reasonably fast.

I’d have to compare the pho side by side with its competition to determine a winner, but that’s a plus. It’s rich, flavorful and eminently drinkable, which may seem uncouth but is a far better method for draining the bowl than using a spoon. The meatballs, in particular, are worth your time, and although I didn’t try it, I hear the vegetarian pho is tasty. I guess.

The banh mi have changed not at all, meaning the bread is maybe a little too prone to crumble everywhere, but the taste is good and the price right. The cóm (rice dishes) don’t work as well as the bún (vermicelli dishes), mostly because the rice isn’t cooked particularly well, with hard bits and little taste. The proteins, however, are good regardless of where they appear, cooked on a grill behind the big counter that can make the space a little humid but also supplies great fragrance. Shrimp rolls are fine and arrive speedily if you’re starving but aren’t really worth $2, paired with a sort of boring peanut-y sauce.

If there’s one item on the menu you should make more of an effort to consume, it’s the garlic chicken wings, fried crisp and bedazzled with chunks of garlic. Salty, faintly sweet, meaty and with wonderful texture, they are totally worth not getting kissed over. Yummy Pho is open for lunch and dinner every day and takes credit cards.

Food of the Gods: When Tlaloc El Mexicano opened on Chase Street about three years ago, I assumed it was the kind of delicious but flaky operation that wouldn’t stick around very long, with its (then) cash-only policy and somewhat intimidating atmosphere to non-Spanish speakers. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The restaurant’s low prices, endearingly party-like attitude (window graffiti promoting drunkenness) and tasty food found it an audience, including chef Hugh Acheson, who promoted it to GQ.

Back in June, it expanded to a second location, this one in Watkinsville (2061 Hog Mountain Rd.), in the Bell’s shopping center in the old Cactus Cafe space. If you prefer a lack of carpeting and a less sedate environment, you should stick to the original, but if you don’t mind a little in the way of creature comforts, it is totally worth the drive to Watkinsville. The food is as good as ever, served in the kind of massive portions that make customers beg for less.

The tortas, huge but amazingly light considering their size, enfold a wonderful range of ingredients. You could do a lot worse than the Hawaiiana, which includes grilled pineapple as well as meat, mayo, avocado and vegetable, covering every food group in one package. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys being the center of attention and/or is apt to enter an eating competition, the molcajetazo is for you. Served in a huge mortar, which arrives on a heated stone topped with aluminum foil and literally on fire for a good couple of minutes, it is not for the shy or the faint of appetite. Containing nopales (cactus leaves, cut to resemble long, green alien fingers), whole onions, diced chicken, crumbled chorizo, whole jalapenos, pork, triangles of pupusa/quesadilla and probably more I’m forgetting, it also includes handmade tortillas and a plate of rice, beans and fixin's for $15.50.

I haven’t found a weak spot on the menu yet, and there are always nice surprises, like the presence of three salsas one day with the complimentary chips, each of which was fresh, subtle, complex and in no way resembling the standard puree of tomato and vinegar. The restaurant is open every day for lunch and dinner and, at least at the moment, is offering free sopapillas with your meal. Both locations take credit cards.