Pho Tau Bay (Minneapolis, MN)
You want fast? We'll show you fast. Run into Pho Tau Bay and grab one of those packets rolled in paper by the cashier. Ask to make sure it's grilled pork. Pay your $2 and leave.
Oh boy, what you've got in your hands is a sandwich like you would never believe. It's a bahn mi sandwich: grilled spiced pork, cold, served with scallions, cilantro, pickled carrots and cabbage, and hot peppers in a short baguette. Pick out the hot peppers if you need to, then start eating. Notice how the flavors are, at the same time, distinct and blended. This is the way food is supposed to taste. It's the best fast-food sandwich in the Twin Cities, and a much better deal in every way than any fast food you've ever had. Eat slow; enjoy yourself.
Do you have a few more minutes? Ask for a table. Service is like lightning here. Servers wander the restaurant with bee-like programming. If you have a menu, they take your order. If you don't have a menu, they bring your food. It's really like that. Food comes within scant minutes of ordering. And if you insist on holding on to your menu, they'll stop, one by one several times a minute, to take your order. They'll keep coming even after your food has arrived. Hide the menu, and they stop. This is faster than fast food.
Minneapolis has many Vietnamese restaurants, and their quality varies greatly. For years, our favorite was Mi Trieu Chau. But they started declining, and the blaring television started getting to us. Then we followed the crowd to Quang's, when they moved across Nicollet and opened their new, larger restaurant. But too often we went there and they were out of pho. Unacceptable, we said. Then we found Pho Tau Bay, and we haven't left since.
From the outside, the place is a disaster. The building is dirty and ill-kept. It's tucked in the corner by the railroad tracks and the backside of the K-Mart. It looks more like a place to score a drug deal than to eat dinner. But the parking lot -- pothole hell; is your car's suspension up to it? -- is always full.
And the restaurant is always crowded. Even so, the tables are spread apart and the noise level isn't bad. There have been times where we were the only westerners in the restaurant. It's a large, well-lit room, loosely divided into smoking and non-smoking sections. The décor is cheap -- cheesy inlaid paintings on the walls, plastic plants and mirrors -- but the upholstery is new, and the chairs and tables all match.
We've been struggling to understand Pho Tau Bay, and near as we can tell they serve food like grandma used to make. Grandma probably wasn't the best cook in the world, but everything she made was wholesome and good, and anyway she was family. Pho Tau Bay is like that: maybe you can complain about this and that, and maybe one particular dish is better down the street, but it's just better to eat at grandma's.
The menu is the most comprehensive of any we've found in the Twin Cities. There are 21 different kinds of pho, 14 different kinds of bun (Vietnamese vermicelli: some with soup and some served cold), a good dozen broken-rice dishes, several varieties of spring rolls, all sorts of Vietnamese specialties and even a few Chinese standards.
The pho is fine, and they've never run out on us. This is beef soup, served piping hot with noodles and various bits of vegetables and seasonings. You'll get a plate on the side with bean sprouts, fresh Thai basil, lime wedges, and hot peppers. This is your chance to experiment. Taste the soup, add some of one of the ingredients, then taste again. Repeat until the soup is to your liking. When you get a bit bored, add another ingredient. We like the fresh beef pho, number 9 on the menu, and we always add the hot peppers first and the limes last.
By far the best thing on the menu is the papaya with beef liver. It's No. A12 on the menu. It's a cold plate of carrots, jicama, peanuts, dried papaya and beef liver, mint and other spices, and fish sauce. We consider it an example of a perfect dish -- interesting, balanced, delicious -- and the best thing we've ever found on any Vietnamese menu anywhere.
We also like the hot and sour fish soup (No. 66), and the bun with pork and shrimp. The spring rolls range from okay to good (order the ones with peanut sauce over the ones with fish sauce), and the broken rice dishes range from good to excellent. The fondue dishes (Nos. 69-72) are served in the broth they're cooked in, with a side of rice. Tasty, but you can do better here. You can order that grilled pork sandwich at your table. It's on the first page, under bahn mi.
Your check is waiting for you up front, so don't ask for it. Just find your table number (it's on the wall near your table) and pay at the register. It's faster that way.