Let me first begin by saying that I am not an expert in Vietnamese cuisine. If you have not lived in Vietnam or married into a Vietnamese family the chances are you are not either. As in any country, food will vary regionally and from one family to another. I have eaten in only a couple of Vietnamese restaurants, but have read more than my share of recipes and I have found that to be true. I have also read very conflicting information online regarding Pho Le Vietnamese restaurant in Red Bank. I had to approach it, as always, with an open mind, not allowing the opinions of Vietnamese food “experts” to influence me.
We arrived here at midday on Sunday planning to make this our main meal of the day. Being influenced by many different American cultures, the Sunday midday meal can be brunch, lunch or dinner. We will call this them.
When we arrived the place had just opened and there was already a table of ten or twelve seated along with a table of two. Our server, Tom, got us set up right away at our table in the window and was thoughtful in saying he wanted to get our order in ahead of the banquet so there would be no delay. Fortunately he was prepared to answer our dozens of questions and made some very helpful suggestions too. We made up our minds pretty quickly and ordered. One order of Saigon Crepes, one Super Bowl Vermicelli, one Pho Tai, (rare beef and noodle soup) and one order of Summer Rolls to go. We ordered the rolls to go because we really wanted to try them but Tom said it would be too much. It turned out that he was right. As we found out he was the son of the owner and works only on Sunday. That explains where his wealth of knowledge is derived. For example the broth for the Pho takes 18 hours to make.
First out were the Saigon crepes. (banh xeo) These are two large crepes which have wrappers made with coconut and rice and filled with shrimp, chicken, bean sprouts and onions and served with romaine lettuce leaves for wrapping, along with cilantro and mint. I cut off a slice of the crepe and put it in the lettuce. Tom, had placed a jar of chili oil on the table and said to use it very sparingly. Thank you for saving me from the evil god of hell fire. The crepe was fantastic and that tiny drop of chili oil was all that was needed to light my taste buds up. The shrimp were tender and sweet and cooked perfectly and the wrapper was an unusual combination of light and crisp yet pliable. This dish was the star of the day which alone would bring me back here.
My wife Laura had the Pho Tai which was served with a dish of Thai basil, sliced jalapenos, bean sprouts and lime. I tried it and found the broth was rich and not salty with several dimensions of flavor enhanced by the addition of the Thai basil and the other ingredients. The beef was flavorful and tender and cooked just past rare with thin rice noodles.
My dish was called the Super Bowl on the menu. It was a bed of rice vermicelli (bún) with fire grilled marinated beef, chicken, shrimp and pieces of egg roll and some vegetables, served with a small bowl of nuoc cham a dipping sauce made from, what I think was, chili, garlic and fish sauce. This was also delicious and very satisfying dish.
As I said earlier, we ordered the summer rolls to go and had them later. I decided that I would take a picture after one of the three had already been devoured. Summer rolls are the same rice vermicelli, served cold with shrimp and pork wrapped in rice paper and accompanied by a slightly sweet peanut sauce. I am not sure which was better—the summer rolls or the Giants beating the Cowboys. I know I can always count on the summer rolls being a winner.
The menu at Pho Le is extensive with many tempting offerings. This can make choosing difficult but it is a reason to return also. There are Bahn Mi, the famous Vietnamese sandwiches, and a range of dinner entrees like a Whole Red Snapper, Shaking Beef, and Lemongrass Curry Chicken. For beverages I tried the Thai Ice Tea which is strong tea sweetened with sugar with condensed milk floating on top for presentation. I saved it for dessert as it is very rich and sweet. There are bubble teas, fresh squeezed lemon and orange drinks, and Vietnamese coffee. You may bring you own beer or wine also. I personally have always preferred beer with most Asian food.
The decor is simple and contemporary and consists of about a dozen tables or maybe a few more. If I had two wishes they would be first, to not burn incense. I would rather smell cooking before eating. It would also be nice play Asian music that adds to the atmosphere, rather than Carole King Tapestry from first cut to last. Minor things that I think would be an improvement.
We enjoyed our visit to this Vietnamese Restaurant in Red Bank tremendously, which was enhanced by Tom our server. By the way it takes his mother three hours to make that chili oil that with large doses could kill in minutes. Seriously, it is an incendiary delicacy like nothing I have ever tasted. We bought a tub of it to bring home that will probably last a year or more. Try a teaspoon of it. I dare you.
Pho Le is located at 90 Broad Street in Red Bank. They are opened six days a week for lunch and dinner and closed Monday. They are a BYOB. You can view the entire menu on their website. There is plenty parking in the municipal lot and also behind some of the buildings that are closed on weekends and at night. Also on the street if you are lucky. Red Bank is a great walking town so parking a few blocks away is always a good thing.