By Julie Pendray
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Mention Vietnamese food, and I’m in. Add “fusion” and I’m curious. So I approached my invitation to Pho 533, a longtime eatery in Palm Springs, with excitement. The restaurant had gained a following over many years for good reasons, I learned. New owner, chef Chad Gardner, wanted to show me his additional touches.
I love Vietnamese food and actually I love most Asian food because of all the vegetables, the color, the variety of flavors and the healthy way these are all presented. At Pho 533, the menu isn’t the only attractive element. This place has an endearing patriotic story. The restaurant was founded by Anh ho Rock, who escaped on a fishing boat with her family, at age 10, as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War, according to the web site. Rock, her parents and 11 brothers and sisters were rescued by the crew of U. S. Land Support Tanker 533, among 300 other refugees and made a new life in the United States. She memorialized the name of the tanker when she named her business and she earned a loyal following with the popular “street food” of her homeland. Pho (pronounced “fuh” or “faa”) is a noodle soup, including broth, meat and/or vegetables. The fun part comes from the herbs you can toss on top.
Chef Gardner was one of Rock’s patrons. When he heard Rock wanted to sell the establishment, he wanted to keep the memorial going, he told me, and he saw an opportunity. It was 40 years since the fall of Saigon when Rock sold the restaurant in 2015. She gave Gardner her recipes, and Gardner says he added even more fresh vegetables and infused some dishes with French twists. He clearly loves edible art. Everything is beautifully presented. The dishes and their accompanying cocktails are fragrant, fun and satisfying.
My favorite rolls were the BLT, the Crunchy Tiger Shrimp and the Mushroom Soba. Among the entrees, I was most impressed with the Japanese eggplant. In general, eggplant is a fruit that lays down the gauntlet, daring people to make it flavorful, cooked to just the right degree to attain the perfect texture. Pho 533 nails it. Their wok-fired delight, with mushrooms, is the tastiest eggplant dish I’ve ever tried.
If you go to Pho 533 with a sense of adventure, you’ll be delighted. We tried Yellow Curry with Lime; Chicken Lemongrass Meatballs and Beef Brisket Pho, among others. Everything was mouth watering. Portions were generous. In the words of this company’s web site: “Pho is the perfect comfort food, warm, hearty and deliciously refreshing.”
Cocktails are divine at this place. I was thrilled to find my favorite ginger beer, Bundaberg from Australia, made with real ginger, which I’d tasted in Cairns near the Great Barrier Reef 23 years ago. At Pho 533, seated among friends…having my senses awakened….sharing good times…with a drink made with Bundaberg, I was in seventh heaven. Here, the refreshing and tangy concoctions offset the spicy entrees perfectly. Ask your server for recommendations. One drink, infused with the Middle Eastern lemon leaf kaffir offers a deliciously uncommon flavor. The Guava mojito is another I recommend.
The fun and casual ambiance of the renovated Pho 533 includes a new roll bar and retro decor. Their prices are reasonable for the quality of food. On the night I was there, I found staff well trained, attentive to just the right degree, humble and hospitable. Service was quick, accurate and courteous. They took note of the gluten-free needs of one person at the table, for example. Pho 533 seems to have hired staff who enjoy their work and the restaurant. That speaks highly.
Reservations are a good idea. I’ve stopped in twice since my initial visit, to ask how things are going. On a Monday night, the place was packed. On a Sunday night, they were preparing for another crowd. February is a busy month in Palm Springs.
Pho 533 is open 7 days a week, 11 a.m to 9 p.m., and they do take-out orders. Find them in Smoke Tree Village, 1775 E. Palm Canyon Dr, Suite 625, Palm Springs. (760) 778-6595. Tell them Julie sent you. Chef Gardner still does catering too, through his Dash and a Handful Catering & Artisan events company.
Copyright Julie Pendray & SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com