There are exactly 124 items on Pho Kim’s menu, not including the beverages, and the waiters have all of them memorized. Though the service can be sluggish, it’s commendable because if you ask your waiter what number 86 is, he’ll confidently answer, “Rice with grilled pork-chops.”
At half past 6 pm, I meet my dining partner, former SFR intern Jackson Larson, at the Solana Center on West Alameda Street. Pho Kim is the green restaurant, two doors down from the Co-op. This restaurant isn’t fine-dining, it’s a southeast Asian joint with good grub and fake plants. You can sit inside or out, but if it’s a summer evening in Santa Fe, sitting outside you can enjoy the light breeze and Jazz serenades from the speakers.
Before delving any further into this culinary expedition, I’d like to set some things straight. “Pho” phonetically sounds more like “fuh” than “foh.” The resulting pronunciation is “Fuh Kim.” Therefore, the faster you say “Pho Kim,” the funnier it is. When my editor says, “You’re going to Pho Kim,” I philanthropically accept the mission. As it turns out, pho kim is a traditional beef noodle soup, and Kim the owner’s daughter’s middle name.
Be prepared to speak numerically when you arrive because dishes are referred to as their allocated number. As I’m jotting down notes during the meal, Jackson remarks, “It looks like you’re doing math.”
A favor we ask of our waiter, “What’s your favorite item on the menu?” He likes numbers 47 and 32, but if we want pho, he suggests number 17. The Pho Dac Biet, an amalgamation of numbers 9 through 16, is a beef noodle soup—an all-or-nothing boiling cauldron of brisket, crunchy flank, meatballs and tendon. The broth is clear and salty, with garnishes of basil, chili and lime.
The origins of pho are somewhat muddled. Supposedly, the recipe was concocted after the French colonization of Vietnam during the late 19th century. Before French influence, the Vietnamese didn’t slaughter cows for food. Then, in the 1920’s, the first Pho restaurant opened in Hanoi, northern Vietnam. meal begins with two shakes: an avocado and a jackfruit. The avocado shake is pale green and tastes like sweetened butter. The jackfruit isn’t as mellow; it’s a sharp kick, which, if paired with a meal, can be overpowering. Jackson and I order the first and last items on the menu—just to make a statement.
Number 1 is Goi Cuon (spring rolls), and number 124 is Com Ca Fillet Chien Xa Ot (Tilapia fillet marinated with spicy lemon grass). We also order a number 45, a Banh Hoi Cha Gio (steam rice Vermicelli patties with egg rolls). We don’t order pho, because, though it smells delicious, neither of us are adventurous enough.
The spring rolls, a combination of minced meat and noodles, are tightly wrapped in translucent rice paper and served with a roasted peanut sauce. They’re so fresh that, when bitten into, the rice paper snaps. Number 45 is served on a bed of romaine lettuce with a side of rice-vinegar dipping sauce. The steamed vermicelli patties are like mattresses of thin rice noodles, which, when dipped into the sauce, dutifully absorb the liquid. Number 124, the tilapia fillet, is served with Jasmine rice, but it tastes more like tilapia shnitzel than fillet. The fish is breaded and fried, seasoned with chili and lemongrass, and served alongside a hearty scoop of steamed rice.
Basically, Pho Kim is 124 items of Vietnamese goodness. It’s a pleasant hang-out during the late summer hours and, even more so, it’s a fun spot to play a number’s game.