Eating less meat is a practice that many of us follow and one that many talk about. Here's a tip: Seek out good ethnic restaurants, and you won't miss the meat. It's all about the flavor, and there's plenty at Pho Binh, a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant on Madison across from Piggly Wiggly in Midtown.
Fresh basil. Cilantro. Housemade stocks. Sliced hot peppers and a generous hand with aromatics and spices.
It's also one of the best bargains in town. The lunch buffet is $5.69, which makes it a popular spot and thus also makes it a better buffet. High turnover is what it takes to keep food fresh on
a steam table, and Pho Binh has the process well paced. (Note that while the sign says Pho Hoa Binh, the name no longer includes Hoa because of a dispute with an Atlanta restaurant of that name.)
The restaurant is on the small side, though not tiny -- maybe a dozen tables or thereabouts -- and most are occupied during the lunch peak. The trays on the buffet are the right size for the crowd; if you have to wait for food, you don't have to wait long, and having it fresh is worth it.
To the tofu: The lemongrass tofu is popular and a favorite of vegetarians I know and many contributors to crowd-sourced dining websites. Though I like the flavor -- slightly spicy, herbaceous and a little tangy -- both times I tried it, I found the tofu was a bit tough from over-frying.
Take note that I'm not a tofu expert. And I'll point out that the texture is similar to what I've found at most restaurants around town. However, having had "crispy tofu" at one other local restaurant, I know that it's possible to fry it delicately enough so that it's creamy and smooth inside.
The Kung Pao tofu has a wet sauce (the spices on the lemongrass aren't exactly dry, but it's not served with a sauce) that coats the tofu, helping with the texture, and also gives it some spice and heat.
Yet the pineapple tofu, with both peppery notes and sweet bits of pineapple, was even better.
The curry tofu soup and the vegetable soup were my favorites on the buffet, though. In the former, big cubes of tofu and potatoes were awash in a sweet and creamy yellow curry. I can't imagine that even the most timid tongues would find it hot, which often comes to mind with curry. Trust me, this is calm and soothing.
The vegetable soup is fresh and simple. Pieces of cabbage and carrot swim in a vegetable stock so clear that it's a surprise when you taste it and find it so deep and savory. Some soups on the menu are served in a chicken stock. Others, like the popular pho tai, are in a beef broth. While heartier, it was cloudy and not as rich as I expected. The soup was loaded with noodles, paper-thin slices of beef and vegetables, and came with a plate of herbs, bean sprouts and peppers.
The menu is extensive, though pared down quite a bit from my previous visit years ago. Still, working your way around it might require a bit of help from your server. Just ask questions. All are friendly and speak fluent English.
There are a bit more than a dozen choices in several categories: Tofu with specialty sauce; wheat gluten with specialty sauce (wheat gluten is better known as seitan); authentic Vietnamese cuisine; Vietnamese soup; rice vermicelli; house specialties; and stir fry with specialty sauces, which is pretty much an American-Chinese menu.
On to the vermicelli, where we'll find my favorite, Bun Bo Xao (or you can just order vermicelli No. 5). I order the big bowls of crisp lettuce topped with thin rice noodles and pickled vegetables. It includes seared pieces of beef tenderloin, big pieces of onion sauteed with a bit of curry, slivered herbs and ground peanuts. A fish sauce with flecks of red pepper and a bit of sugar is served alongside. Pour it over and enjoy.
On the authentic Vietnamese menu, we tried and thoroughly enjoyed the Ga Xao Xa Ot (sauteed chicken with lemongrass and hot peppers, or No. 2). A light sauce coats the tender chicken, carrots and onions. It's on the spicy side, so let your server know what your comfort level is when you order.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Address: 1615 Madison
Telephone: (901) 276-0006
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, noon-9 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Bun Bo Xoa ($7.25); vegetable soup ($2.79 or $5.99); pineapple tofu ($7.59); Goa Xao Xa Ot ($8.99); lunch buffet, $5.69
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars