I really wanted to like Pho Ava (2430 Cerrillos Road, 577-6572), the sister restaurant of the Solana Center’s Pho Kim, operated by Jenny Huynh and Tommy Nguyen. Like its forebear, Ava sits in a little strip mall, and when I went to eat with a girlfriend on a Tuesday night, the place was pleasantly bustling amid bright emerald-green walls and spacious, comfortable tables.
The service was cheerful and pleasant for a casual food joint, and I was excited to maybe discover my next hole-in-the-wall obsession, having read about the exciting, sprawling menu. It offers a variety of noodle-based dishes (everything from udon to egg to vermicelli) and a small selection of banh mi sandwiches plus jackfruit shakes and thai tea. But it was a cold winter night, and we both wanted soup, so we went with the rice noodle bowl with shrimp and scallops ($13) and an order of rare steak and brisket pho noodle soup ($11) along with tofu spring rolls ($4) and vegetable egg rolls ($6) to start.
Our starters and entrees arrived a minute or two apart from each other. At one point, I stood up to use the restroom with no food in front of me—and when I got back the egg and tofu rolls were already on the table with the bowls of soup only mere moments away. Pho Ava is obviously a strip mall eatery that needs to turn tables quickly, so I wasn’t mad—and besides, eating spring rolls and pho at the same time wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
The eponymous pho was a little anticlimactic, however, but maybe that’s because I’m used to the rare beef arriving on the side, to be dropped into the broth at table and “cooked” slightly by its heat. But here, the rare beef arrived already in the soup, still pink on the inside. It was cooked through well enough, though without the presentation to make it fun and fresh. Perhaps it came that way because the soups were not particularly hot and cooled down very fast, which ultimately made their taste a lot less interesting.
Once we’d eaten the rare beef, the brisket felt coarse and chewy and didn’t really integrate with the soup very well, although the broth had a rich umami flavor profile (I’m not personally averse to MSG, but for those who are, it is a featured ingredient, according to Pho Ava’s menu). There was only cilantro on the herb plate, no basil, which I also found to be a letdown since cilantro is not really my flavor. There were bean sprouts and jalapeños, which I broke up into little pieces and tossed in the soup. While the pho broth hit the right notes for me, the shrimp and scallop rice soup tasted bland; like eating a bowl of lukewarm, watered down broth with vermicelli noodles in it. I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the bowl, although it did come with wonderful tiny fried slices of scallion. Again, though, I would have preferred them served crunchy and fresh on the side, to be sprinkled into the soup throughout the meal, because they turned soggy pretty quickly. The egg rolls were serviceable but bland; but the tofu rolls, with slightly firm and grilled tofu wrapped with basil leaves and vermicelli noodles and served alongside a peanut dipping sauce, were pretty great.
Considering how broad and interesting—and fresh—Vietnamese food can be, everything in front of me seemed even more perfunctory. When I think about the wonderful Vietnamese food I’ve had in New Mexico (Lan’s springs to mind, not to mention a few spots in Albuquerque like Cafe Trang or Pho #1 that are well worth checking out), I don’t feel unreasonable in expecting more. On the whole, I felt unsatisfied for dropping $20-ish on a meal that didn’t really make me feel anything.
I wish I could research or justify, but Pho Ava really just serves average-tasting food that isn’t too expensive and that doesn’t offer any deep revelation. On the other hand, it was hot soup on a cold night with a friend and everything came to around $40 for two. For Santa Fe, that feels like a plus. But I am so tired of accepting mediocrity on the grounds that I live in a small town and there isn’t anything better around. I’d go back to try the banh mi (I’m all for Vietnamese food that embraces its French influences, and I wish someone in New Mexico would open up a restaurant that really digs deep into the cultural fusion that makes Vietnamese food so striking), but for the sake of the noodles, I’d rather eat elsewhere.