1551 Niagara Falls Blvd, Amherst, NY 14228
Web: Pho Saigon
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"Nothing disappoints a true fan of Vietnamese food more than poor renditions of his or her favorite dishes, and... it's hard to avoid disappointment when canvassing this menu."
Rarely is a restaurant named with an inadvertent double entendre, but the Niagara Falls Boulevard restaurant Pho Saigon's rendition of Vietnamese food struck us as surprisingly inauthentic and sloppy. Dishes that on the surface appear to be pretty close to the real thing, such as the classic rice noodle dish Bun, come out of the kitchen with overbearing sauces or underwhelming broths, as well as quantities of meat and seafood that are modest from item to item. After dining here, we considered a second visit when we asked relatives for a recommendation as to what was truly good on the menu; we opted not to return when they couldn't come up with anything that met that standard.
The Story: With the possible exception of the once great Swiss Chalet, which technically is in a freestanding building much closer to the street, the plaza at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Romney Road has never been known for its restaurants, Asian or otherwise. This fact alone made Pho Saigon an immediate curiosity: despite its proximity to the Chinese-slash-Korean restaurant Seoul Garden and Thai heavyweight Jasmine Thai, it is considerably further down the street from Saigon Bangkok, the area's only well-established Vietnamese restaurant, and otherwise surrounded by classical meat and potatoes establishments - steakhouses, sports bars, pizza and wing shops, and fast food restaurants. Knowing that size and decor aren't important to the authenticity of a restaurant's meals or the scope of its menu, we were interested to see what this small, somewhat barren Vietnamese place could offer.
Highs: Pho Saigon's prices are reasonable and its menu offers a number of different choices that more or less resemble the options at other, better Vietnamese places. A few items, such as stir fried lemongrass pepper frog's legs, and grilled pork paste on vermicelli, are traditionally Vietnamese yet somewhat unique to Pho Saigon locally, as they're not offered by many other restaurants. Additionally, its owner is friendly, especially to repeat customers, and occasionally offers free treats as a reward for continued business.
Lows: Our dishes weren't inedible, but didn't taste like Vietnamese food, either. The expected lightness of that Southeast Asian cuisine, noted in its many room temperature dishes, was overwhelmed in a grilled lemongrass beef and eggroll vermicelli dish ($5.50 to $7.50) by slimy, greasy sauces and substituted ingredients that didn't quite achieve the same taste as the originals. Visually, the dish looked like the original Bun Bo Xao Xa Ot Cha Gio, but the flavors were just off - it tasted like a Chinese meal using Vietnamese inspiration and naming conventions.
Similarly, a relatively straightforward deep fried dish we tried was greasy and extremely limited in anything but the cheapest ingredients. Called Mi Xao Don Hai San, the menu describes it as a seafood bird's nest, which is technically accurate to what arrived, but the proportions of vegetables and noodles were much higher than the seafood - only a few, small pieces of shrimp and squid were inside. This dish, sold for $12.50 at Pho Saigon, is invariably much better tasting at Saigon Bangkok, which has been serving outstanding, lightly peppered versions with various types of seafood and meats for years.
Finally, a bowl of Pho soup, pronounced Fa and sold in small, large, and extra large sizes for $5.50 to $8.25, was nearly flavorless despite the simplicity of its ingredients, namely beef broth, onions, scallions, rice noodles, and pieces of beef. The small bowl, featuring as many onion slices as pieces of meat, might as well have been dishwater when we tried it; a small portion of garnishes, including bean sprouts, was not enough to bring up the flavor. This dish, which is most often served in a form that inspires deep bowl hunts for the last remaining noodles, instead resulted in us hastily calling for the check.
The Verdict: Nothing disappoints a true fan of Vietnamese food more than poor renditions of his or her favorite dishes, and judging by what we've tasted at Pho Saigon, it's hard to avoid disappointment when canvassing this menu. The only offset to this forgettable experience is its affordable pricing, which might serve as a temptation to stop in for lunch regardless of our negative recommendation. Do so, and you'll probably repeat what a friend recently told us: "I had to stop in and try the Pho. But you were right." Unless you're willing to settle for something mediocre, save yourself the trouble.