I'm not sure what's driving the explosive growth in Sarasota's Vietnamese cuisine sector, but if you happened to have purchased broth stock a couple years ago, you're rich, baby. For a while, we were stuck with just a couple options, but all of sudden we're flooded with choice: Pho Cali, Miss Saigon, Lê Ánh's, Pho 101, Demi's Noodle House, Phở 99 and Phở Sàigòn.
Sarasota Magazine Phở Editors Hannah, Megan and I are seated at the last restaurant in that list, which opened up seven months ago in the middle of the Landings shopping strip. One beige wall is reflected in the mirrors that line the opposite side of the room. At the back, a handful of black bar stools snuggle up to a red bar, above which dangle glowing pendant lamps. A cross hangs on one wall; a pair of flatscreens on another. The gray tables are decorated with small vases stuffed with soft pink, yellow and lavender petals.
The menu sticks to Vietnamese classics you'll find at most of the other joints in town, with a big emphasis on beefy phở and big bowls of rice noodles. Most of the phở options run right at $10, the stock fortified with proteins like chicken, brisket or shrimp. Or splurge and opt for the "king combo," which at $12 gives you a little piece of almost every part of a cow. There are thin slices of steak, brisket, meatballs, something called "fatty flank," tendons and tripe, the animal's stomach lining.
The king comes out in a bowl big enough for me to practice my backstroke in, the ceramic round weighed down with a growler's worth of broth. Inside the orangish-brown liquid rests those cow parts, plus noodles, scallions and cilantro. From a plate on the side, I scatter sprouts and jalapeños. A couple lime wedges offer some fresh acid to the mix. Sriracha and hoisin do their thing, too.
Verdict: This broth is good. It's immaculately seasoned, with a clear, beefy flavor. It lacks the edge of sweetness you might experience at other Vietnamese places, making it a bit more one-dimensional, but that doesn't stop me from sucking down pint after pint. The meats are all tender and integrated well into the soup. None really stand out, but they're not really supposed to.
I'm satis-phở-ed. Hannah less so. Her bún ($10), a mix of rice noodles, vegetables and herbs, is lacking. The chewy, fishy shrimp are a disappointment. "It's un-phở-rtunate," Hannah says. Megan has more luck, praising her shrimp fried rice, or cơm chiên tôm ($9-$11). "The phở-laver is on point," Megan enthuses. "I'd give it phở-r out of five stars."
What really carries us through the afternoon are the sweetened iced coffees ($3.50), which we take to go. Phở SàiGòn's version is surprisingly not as sweet as I've come to expect, but it's still plenty sugary, of course. The mix is a nice change of pace, with a more assertive coffee punch than at other places.
We inch back downtown, my center console bulging with the gallon of broth I couldn't finish at the restaurant. Mid-Sarasota's streets are clogged with Season traffic, but that's all right by me. We sip our coffees with the windows down. We're in no hurry.
Phở SàiGòn is located at 4854 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. It is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 5-8 p.m. on Sunday between November and June. For more info, call (941) 487-7427.