Poke. Pho. Buffalo-fried cauliflower. What do the three things have in common (other than the fact they’re all delicacies I love)? They’re food fads on our dining scene—though, some aren’t “trends” at all. Hawaiians have been dicing up marinated raw fish bowls since way before Moana ever sang about how far she’ll go. Major food meccas like Los Angeles have been noodling around with (and pronouncing) pho accurately (“fuh”) for longer than most would imagine. As Wilmington residents have slowly started to expand their horizons around modernized cuisine, restaurants ready to supply that demand have followed suit.
NOODLES FOR DAYS: Pho Basil’s pho is hearty and aromatic—and just wait for the rest. Photo by Tom Dorgan
Pho Basil recently sprouted up between Kerr Avenue and College Road. Take it from a professional: Foreign food from an old strip mall pretty much is always a good idea.
I’m not going to tip-toe around the topic: Wilmington welcomed Pho Café to Market Street last year and became the place for hungry diners to get a pho fix. Don’t worry, Pho Basil, our town is big enough for the both of ya!
I called in a fairly substantial order to Pho Basil on a Wednesday evening, and in under 20 minutes, I was headed out the door with two massive takeout bags in hand. A note for anyone not eating on-the-go, the interior of Pho Basil lends itself quite well to dining in. Although the restaurant is counter-style service, there are plenty of cozy tables (complete with hoisin, Sriracha and soy) to slurp away and feel at home.
Speaking of going home, I didn’t even make it onto Kerr without going face-first into the cha gio chay (or vegetarian spring rolls). Giving an accurate review of a fried item means digging into it immediately—as nature, well, the deep fryer—intended it to be eaten. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve chowed down on my share of salty, crunchy things in restaurant parking lots. The lightly stuffed cylinders were simple, tasty, and I could have eaten 12. They weren’t generously packed with veggies, but had just enough flavorful cabbage and tofu that, when combined with the sweet dipping sauce (delicate and thin unlike other some other sticky-sweet dippers tend to be), they were addictive.
As for the goi cuon (fresh summer rolls), I found the shrimp, pork and cellophane noodles to be pretty standard. What set them apart was the addition of crunchy lettuce and licoricey Thai basil. That texture brought forward a bright freshness, though the rest of the roll didn’t have much umph without being dunked into the tangy, dark-brown peanut sauce.
And for the banh mi, well, while the French baguette was fabulously fluffy, I was slightly disappointed by the pork meatball version of. I was hoping for juicy rounds of seasoned pork, but instead was greeted with thin smoky sausage slices. On the good bread, with crunch from the jalapeños and cucumbers, the sandwich was tasty but nothing to write home about. There are infinite ways to dress up a standard banh mi, but consistencies in Pho Basil’s dishes are straightforwardness and authenticity—so don’t expect anything eclectic or fancy.
The bun thit nuong, or rice noodle bowl with lemongrass pork, is a traditional dish and was blended with cold rice vermicelli noodles, topped with grilled pork (or protein of choice), fresh veggies and lettuce. On the side was fish sauce—which everyone should definitely douse all over for an additional tongue punch. Pho Basil’s version stuck pretty close to tradition, though the pork had a lovely caramelization and was thoughtfully infused with lemongrass (a wonderful ingredient whose magic often gets lost). The fibrous aromatic was pulsed into a paste and actually cooked with the meat and used as a garnish. I loved the intense citrusy burst of flavor, especially when paired with a mouthful of chilled noodles, cucumber and a pungent blast of salty, funky fish sauce.
The chicken-fried rice was quite the hit with my dinner date, who non-reluctantly said “hell, yes” when I asked if she wanted to grub on piles of Vietnamese takeout. It is just a personal preference, but I always opt for noodles over rice. All of that being said, we both found this to be surprisingly hard to stop eating. Some forkfuls of rice had bits of a savory crust and others had a tender chew. Lightly smoky and scented with soy sauce, the veggie-and-egg-packed meal was hearty and delicious. Though it’s not like anyone’s planning to eat fried rice while dieting, but a heads up: The chicken is all dark meat (which is why it looks similar to pork and is noticeably more succulent than white meat).
Drumroll, please: The pho. One word: clove. Diners are likely familiar with the scent, whether they like it or not. Itty bitty clove buds have a surprisingly strong spice note (Christmasy, if you will). Everyone makes pho broth a bit differently, and I found the most prominent trademarks of Pho Basil’s was that, on the nose, it gave off a lot of cinnamon undertones. The good news is the broth doesn’t taste as sweet as one’s nose may trick them into believing. In fact, my friend and I (who split a medium BTW, which made a substantial appetizer) both downed our bowls before we knew what had happened. Overall, the pho was salty, perfumed with oniony scallions, and above all else comforting. With a hit of tart lime and a generous scoop of chili paste or Sriracha, the complex-yet-balanced marriage of flavors and tender beef went down real smooth. I was so focused on preparing even ratios of bean sprouts to noodles that I didn’t even realize my cocktail was empty.
The rumors are true. Pho cures all.
Ample portions, excellent prices and friendly service: Pho Basil, you’re in the game.