The restaurant's nicely priced food can hook novices but also please old pros.
As restaurant names go, "Buckeye Pho" ranks up there in the eyebrow-raising category.
Its collision of disparate words makes for an interesting marriage between the Midwest and the Far East, but is this the inevitable union of compatible partners or a rushed wedding between shaky-legged lovers? Put another way, "Buckeye Pho" seems to speak to the upswing in popularity of Vietnamese food in Columbus (most people I know have tried pho, at least) as much as the wish for the cuisine to be perceived as somehow mainstream.
Unquestionably, the new Buckeye Pho looks nothing like any other Vietnamese joint in town. Instead of an eat-and-run, mom-and-pop shop, this is a modern, spiffy and stylish restaurant you might want to linger in while watching a football game - or Vietnamese TV show - on one of three impressive flat-screens.
There are also glossy red wooden tables, track lighting, a sparkling stainless-steel open kitchen, a handsome tiled bar (though no booze yet) and a scarlet wall with a fairly clever and attractive full-length band of actual stuck-on buckeyes adding a neat note of 3D texture. In short, if humble digs can be an impediment to growing a large fan base, that won't be the case at Buckeye Pho.
Fortunately, Buckeye's nicely priced food won't be an impediment, either. Probably learning a thing or three from a previous success (Buckeye's owners are related to the owners of the excellent Mi Li restaurant), Buckeye Pho manages to cook up stuff that can hook novices but also please old pros. Mostly this is achieved with clean and authentic flavors that nonetheless lean toward the subtle side - but can be easily ratcheted up with an arsenal of add-ons and condiments.
Take, for instance, the convincing Signature Pho ($8.50 for a large bowl). Somewhat understated, its homemade beef broth had pleasant accents of salt, pepper, onion and five spice. Floating in that were the expected scallions, cilantro, meatballs (springy, garlicky), good shaved beef, rice noodles, plus (I'm adventurous; you needn't be) nice treatments of tendon and tripe. The mild but on-target flavors can be - and should be - amped up with the provided cilantro, chili sauces, limes, bean sprouts, basil, mint and so forth.
Along with pho, banh mi sandwiches - Vietnamese subs - are the best known and most widely loved gateway bites into Vietnamese cuisine. Well, Buckeye Pho succeeds there, too. My Grilled Beef Banh Mi ($5.79) arrived on a good, crusty, toasted bun outfitted with house mayo, fine pate and a judiciously applied array of the mandatory veggies. The thick-cut beef itself was also commendable: warm, juicy and gingery.
As with that pate-slathered sandwich, Buckeye's Creme Brulee ($5) alludes to Vietnam's lingering French colonial influences. I was still surprised to find it on Buckeye's menu, but glad I did. This winner's pretty and perfectly brittle caramelized crust was topped with mint and berries and, once spoon-shattered, led to a terrific velvety custard.
Here are a few other things I tried at Buckeye Pho:
• Seafood Soup with Noodles ($9): Another nice, if subtle, broth gently flavored with scallions, good shrimp and mostly tender squid.
• Bun (Vermicelli) with Spring Roll and Grilled Pork ($8): Huge noodle dish with all the fixins plus juicy, gingery pig meat but kinda tired spring rolls.
• Bon Cuon ($7.50): More (fun) textures than tastes, these ground pork-filled rice "crepes" benefited from condiments like sweetened fish sauce.