1506 Bethel Rd.
Columbus, OH 43220
Mon-Thurs: 10:30 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Sun: 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Salads: $7 – $10
“Everybody’s phô tastes the same,” explained the owner and our host. “They buy from California; California buys from China; they all use the same…” but not here at Lac Viêt. Here, they make it a point to not take any short cuts in food preparation. If there is a quicker, easier way to make something, there might be a downside; and so there is when making broth. The broth is cooked for about 24 hours before being served. This slow process brings out more flavors and turns the cloudy emulsion into a clear solution.
“Some people think they can only cook the broth for eight hours. That’s cheating.”
The owner, Thang Nguyen, emphatically explained to Alex and myself how pressure cookers can speed up the cooking process but result in gelatin being released into the solution which then leaves a sticky feeling in the mouth — so he doesn’t use pressure cookers. Alternately, not cooking the broth long enough results in cloudy broth. I was unaware, but apparently there’s a trade secret in the phô world that the chemical aluminum sulfate clears up cloudy broth. And so it would because Al2(SO4)3 is more commonly known as a flocculant used to make particulates in water coagulate out of solution.
It was further explained that there is an easy way to check if your phô has been flocculated (Alex giggles when he reads this word). Just look for your phô to separate into three layers: oil droplets on the top, clear broth in the middle, and a heaver cloudy layer at the bottom. I can tell you that the phô I was served here did not have a distinct cloudy layer at the bottom, but I’m not sure what it would look like or if I’ve seen it before. As our host was explaining this, he noticed that our broths were cloudy. Not to worry, as this was easily explained away as a result of a pH change because we each squeezed a lime wedge into our phô. (I must say: this guy does seem to know his fair share of practical chemistry.)
Note: While aluminum is a toxic metal, the FDA does not consider it a dangerous food additive because amounts normally consumed are far below toxic levels as studied in animal models.
“They all use the same Thai basil,” and our host wanted to be different. So he didn’t use basil in the phô. (Alex loves basil, and I can recall other times I’ve had phô without basil… but that contradicts the narrative.) He liked mint, but “peppermint with lamb is Irish,” and he didn’t want his lamb to be Irish or Turkish or anything but Vietnamese. (Did I mention we ordered lamb phô?) Peppermint was too strong for his liking, so he found a gentler mint. With small leaves and a flavor more expected from lettuce micro-greens, this herb brings some character along side that requisite minty freshness.
Lamb phô is a rarity. That fact goes hand-in-hand with the owner’s philosophy of being different and making an effort to bring the best possible dish to the table. I know some of our readers think they don’t like lamb, but I promise you that none of you have ever tasted lamb like this. The bite-sized pieces are tender and flavorful — they have that fantastic Maillard reaction flavor better associated with seared steak. Each piece is coated in ground pepper, but the piperine had been leached out leaving behind a far subtler aroma without any heat. It’s a perfect complement to the lamb and a tribute to the passion put into making the best phô possible.
The Summer Rolls:
By whatever name, the uncut rolls of rice paper around rice noodles, basil, and 3 pieces of shrimp at Lac Viêt also stand apart from their competitors. While comparable to other such rolls, these came stuffed warm rice noodles and a healthy layer of both basil and mint. It seems such a simple thing, but little things like these set apart an okay roll from an amazing one.
Anyone who orders a summer roll at every opportunity will surely be aware that the dipping sauces that come with them vary widely between restaurants. For those that care, we were served a moderately thick peanut sauce with our rolls. (Pro tip: mix a spoonful of hot chili sauce into the dipping sauce. Peanut or tamarind base doesn’t mater, the chili sauce will make it better)
Food Made to be Customized:
Here there is a philosophy: Vietnamese food is made to be customized. And with that, they present a fair selection for you to add to your phô. Lime wedge, jalapeño slice, mint, or mung bean sprouts? How about some hoisin, sriracha, or hot chili sauce? If you are new to phô, try each one, but try them in moderation; and add them to your spoon, not to your bowl. But before you try any, taste the broth. It should be amazing, and it will make or break the dish.
Hot chili sauce is staple Vietnamese condiment, but here again Lac Viêt stands apart: they make their own. Other chili sauces may taste strongly of garlic or vinegar, so they use very little of them. Instead, they cook down peppers until the flavors are fully diffused and used the least vinegar he could to preserve it. The result is a fairly hot sauce that is packed full of chili flavor.
The tea is provided free (upon request only) as it should be at any Vietnamese place (get ready for our Little Saigon review). The house tea is a green and served strong. In our waitress’ words, “It is bitter on your tongue but turns sweet as it goes down your throat.” I can only attest to the first point. Alex has a more of a refined pallet for teas, and he just shrugged at this one.
For dessert we received Vietnamese style caramel, “not Spanish, not French.” I was presented with what looked and tasted like normal flan, but that’s just semantics. It was a very good flan, but with nothing apparently Vietnamese about it. I had to do some homework, and Vietnamese caramel does exist. However, it doesn’t often look like flan and it isn’t often used for desserts. To Lac Viêt’s credit, there are a few pictures of flan on the web attributed to cuisine from that corner of the world and those pictures are labeled “caramel.” So it may be legitimate, but I’m still calling it flan.
Located in a strip-mall, I didn’t know what to expect inside, but I wasn’t disappointed. The clean and classy interior can only be an outward expression of the pride the owner has in his own restaurant. He’s relatively new to this location (three years). Before this, he ran a carryout shop nine miles away in Columbus’ famous North Market. It seems this recent shift hasn’t been enough to satisfy the owner, so if you’re in the Columbus area be on the lookout for the Lac Viêt mobile food cart. Not a “food truck; [the] first Vietnamese food cart,” in the States according to the owner, it provides hot soup for lunch to varying locations.
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Verdict: Phô Sho
With a short menu, low prices and good food it’s hard to find a down side to this place. So, I’ll limit myself to wishing this place were closer to home. I can’t wait to go back and try their other menu options, but I’ll be hard pressed to pass up what is, without a doubt, the best lamb phô in the area.
In talking to other people I’ve heard of some potential down sides to an otherwise fantastic place: (1) Sometimes they are not open for lunch regardless of the times they say they will be open. (2) The options may be limited to phô, or they may not have lamb available. (3) They may not feel like making summer rolls, even if you order them.
I know the owner cares about the food. If he cares as much about the customers, and if there continue to be problems, hopefully he’ll take heed and make a change to his posted hours so he can stay open the entire time listed and maintain a full menu.