Q: Why do most of my trips from Eastern Maryland to Home in Eastern, West Virginia have me feeling immensely better after I pass through Frederick?
A: Pho is the best hangover cure in the world.
This review started with a trip to Ocean City, Maryland for H2O, one of the biggest Volkswagen and Audi shows on the East Coast. It rained the entire way down, most of the time I was down there, and a portion of the way back. The trip sucked, the show sucked, the drive sucked, and I was glad to be leaving Sunday morning, although slightly hungover.
So after a good two and a half hour drive from Ocean City, I finally hit Frederick and decided to stop at Viet's Aroma. It underwent a name change a while ago, but still keeps the same people working there. It's one of two special pho places I visit and Viet's Aroma is located in a shopping center off Jefferson Street, nestled between a dry cleaners and a nail salon. To add to the charm is a liquor store next to the nail salon, just out of the frame. No jokes please...
Now, a little tidbit of information about pho and the capitol area. Once you reach maybe a 15 mile radius outside the beltway, pho restaurants become like Starbucks was before their financial troubles. There's one on every block. Once you hit outside the pho belt, you're lucky to find anything but wonton soup and lo mien. Viet's Aroma is one of two pho restaurants that I know of outside the pho belt and it's situated in the perfect place to provide hangover relief after spending a weekend with rowdy friends in any part of Maryland East of Frederick.
The place is fairly small with tables close together to fit as many people as possible in on a busy night. It's self seating, so just mosey on in and find yourself a table that pleases you the best. When I got there at noon o' clock, there were only two people eating. After sitting down, I was quickly brought a menu and ordered an iced green tea. I already knew what I wanted, so when the waitress came back it was a quick order of A2 and a larger S1. That's the garden rolls and a large bowl of pho with lean brisket, fatty brisket, soft tendon, and tripe, hold the tripe. Sorry guys, I'll eat almost anything but there are some things I just can't do and a cow's stomach is one of them.
Viet's Aroma's menu has a list of appetizers, different types of pho, and different Vietnamese dishes to try. It's selection is pretty larger, but I tend to stick to the pho when I'm eating there.
My garden rolls were brought out almost right after ordering them. That's to one thing I like about this place. It's fast. Also, it's fast. Did I already mention that it's fast? I've been in Viet's Aroma when it was busy and the service was still fast. These guys are always on the ball and it's never been a hit or miss thing any time I've been. The garden rolls here are better than the other pho place I frequent and probably the best I've had. A garden roll doesn't vary much from location to location. It has rice noodles, veggies, pork, and shrimp wrapped in rice paper. The key to making a good garden roll is a nice tight wrap without breaking the paper. It's a delicate balance and it's something I strive to achieve when making them at home. Viet's Aroma's garden rolls are wrapped nice and tight so that you're not chop sticking the insides of your garden roll off the plate or out of the dipping sauce like at some other restaurants.
The rolls came with a dipping sauce that tasted like and had the consistency of peanut satay sauce mixed with hoison instead of the traditional peanut sauce served at most other pho locations. This was a good thing as their sauce had a thinner consistency and I was better able to apply it to the garden roll. Man that sounds really scientific.
So about a good 30 seconds after finishing the garden rolls, the Pho was brought out with the side dish of add-ons. It was steaming hot and one of the indicators of a good bowl of pho was apparent, red meat. Traditionally, pho is served with portions of the meat that are cooked by adding them to the hot broth. Some places cook it all the way before hand and I think that subtracts from the flavor, or at least from my perception of the flavor.
Another tidbit about pho for those who have not had the pleasure of partaking is that it's like a build your own soup dish. The basics are provided for you; the meat, the broth, and the noodles. A plate with additional ingredients to add is brought out as well. The plate generally includes, thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapenos, and lime. I'll vary it up from time to time, but I'm not a sophisticated person when it comes to my pho. I usually dip a pepper in and set it aside and add every last leaf of thai basil. The trick to the basil is making sure you tear it into piece giving it a chance to release its flavor into the soup. I love basil and I love pho, so basily pho is face meltingly awesome. The jalapenos are generally hot, so test them first and just letting them sit in the broth and removing them is a great way to control the spice so that you're not downing a glass of milk every other bite. There is also hoison (Chinese BBQ sauce, as it's been described by some) and Sriracha, which is thai chili sauce at the tables for you condiment selection pleasure.
The pho itself was very savory. It's made with star anise, which is a very weird spice for me. I hate black licorice, but I'll add star anise to anything I thing would value from it. It's something that has to be tasted to know what I'm talking about. It smells like licorice, but when added to a nice savory broth it doesn't taste like licorice and gives a whole other dimension of flavor. Pho broth is just absolutely amazing. It's like taking every savory and/or cozy thing you know and cooking it to make a broth for soup. Ever wish you could have fireplace, hot chocolate, warm comforter, home soup? Well you can, just go eat pho!
The rice noodles have to be moved around a bit as they come in a block, which is not a problem as I stated in the Yama review. I've not come across any place that makes their own noodles and I'll not fault a restaurant for using dehydrated noodles since its common place. They're cooked perfectly by the time the pho reaches your table; they just need a bit of help to get a good consistency in the bowl.
The brisket is pretty standard with the fatty brisket being a bit more flavorful. The tendon may not be very palatable to some, like tripe is to me, but I enjoy it. It's a mostly clear food and has a firm soft texture like a gummy bear. It doesn't have an intense flavor burst like you get when biting into a steak, but has a nice smooth meaty after flavor. It's like drinking a malty beer that doesn't have much of a hop flavoring. You can order different beef cuts and even chicken if you're so inclined, so you're not stuck eating something that's no appetizing to you, especially if you're a pho noob or you're not used to eating cuts you can't get at a local steak house.
My pho eating ritual, usually consist of meat --> noodles --> broth so I can enjoy the flavor of the broth afterwards. Some people add hoison and Sriracha to the broth, but I find that to be a travesty to the original savory flavor the way I can't stand when people smother a good steak in A-1. If you need to add steak sauce to a steak, it's not a good steak. The same goes for adding hoison and Sriracha to pho broth. So by the time I finished savory every last drop of broth in the bowl to a chorus of wailing children that had come in with parents leading the charge, I was so full of pho-ey goodness and content that I didn't even care.
So if you have a hangover and need to get rid of it or you just want some damned good pho, make sure you stop by Viet's Aroma. It's the best pho outside of the pho belt, pho sure.