I'll be the first to admit it, I love Vietnamese food. I can't exactly remember when I had my first taste of it, certainly it wasn't until I was into my early twenties. But from that first moment, the food from this nation has taken hold of my taste buds and never let go. Even bad Vietnamese food still manages to hit some gastronomic nerve center in my brain that just makes me sigh and say, "ahhhhh!"
While there are actually quite a few places in Cleveland to get Vietnamese, the most talked about rivalry is between Superior Pho and #1 Pho, each just across the street from the other. While some speculate that they are somehow related, I can assure you that they are not. If you spend any amount of time reading the local Cleveland food boards, you will begin to understand that each eatery has its own proponents. Having never tried either restaurant, I jumped at the chance to go there for lunch with good foodie friends Nancy and Edsel.
Superior Pho was located at 3030 Superior Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44114 and can be reached at 216-781-7462. Not surprisingly, there was no website associated directly with the restaurant at the time of this writing. Now that I've told you the official address, here's how to actually FIND the restaurant, as the front door does not face Superior Avenue. Find the corner of Superior and East 31st and make the turn onto 31st going south (it's a one way street, you can only go south). As soon as you make the turn, the parking lot for Superior Pho (and Ha Ahn, too) will be on your right. The entrance to the building is adjacent to the parking lot.
Here was what the backside entrance to the building looked like:
To go to Superior Pho, enter the door on the left side inside the entrance. If instead you wanted to go to Ha Ahn, you would continue down the hall and enter the door on the right side of the hall.
Here was the door I would be entering for lunch today:
I got there slightly before noon and there were plenty of tables. Within about fifteen minutes, however, the place was packed with hungry Clevelanders looking for a filling meal. As I sat down at the table, my server left us with menus:
Seeing that the Vietnamese soup, or pho, was available in both a small and large size, I decided instead of getting one item off the menu that I would split a second one with Edsel. And having heard how good the banh mi sandwiches were, I knew that today would be a soup and sandwich kind of day, Vietnamese style.
Not realizing how quickly the kitchen turned out orders, I went to use the restroom and was gone for maybe three or four minutes. As I walked back into the dining room, our entire meal was being served up. When I thought about it, it made sense since the key to making money during lunchtime was turning tables as often as possible.
First up was a shot of my sandwich, a banh mi thit:
And here was a shot of the inside of the crusty French roll on which it had been served:
Finally, an end shot showing you the layers of meat, pate, and vegetables:
The phrase "banh mi" more or less describes a generic sandwich of this style. Often banh mi are offered with various toppings which changes the name from something generic to more specific. Today's sandwich, with its layers of homemade pate, roasted pork, cucumber, jalapeños, cilantro and mayonnaise, epitomized a great sandwich, Vietnamese or not. The French roll was crusty on the outside and the crumb had a wonderful chew to it. Of course, the bread was wonderfully fresh. The ingredients themselves were also very tasty and nothing overpowered anything else. The last time I had a banh mi was during my trip to the North Market in Columbus while I was there during Linuxfest 2009. That sandwich was good, but this one was better.
In addition to my banh mi, I also ordered a small bowl of pho. The nice thing about Superior Pho's menu was that all the pho were the same price (small or large). You order by simply telling the waiter which type of meat you would like in it. Today I got the #3, which had a mixture of well done brisket and eye round steak.
Here was a shot of my bowl of soup:
With every bowl of pho, you get an additional plate of vegetables that you can optionally add to enhance it:
Present on today's plate were fresh bean sprouts, jalapeño slices, basil, and wedges of fresh lime. Each table had the obligatory bottle of Sriracha as well as hoisin sauce and a jar of vinegar. I normally don't bother with the hoisin or vinegar, but I am a Sriracha freak. I absolutely love the stuff. While none of my other tablemates used the fiery condiment, I loaded up; not so much that I lost the delicate flavors of the soup, but enough that a thorough cleaning of my sinuses was required by the end of the meal.
The biggest surprise was how tender the meats were. I expected the eye round steak to be tender because they put it in raw and the heat of the soup cooks it to around medium. The brisket, however, was also incredibly tender and not stringy at all. The broth was flavorful and the noodles were cooked perfectly, having just the right amount of chew to them. The only real criticism was that I wasn't getting very much of the warming spices from the star anise or clove, spices traditionally used in making the soup stock.
The cost of my soup and sandwich with tax and tip came to a meager $11 which I happily paid. I am looking forward to returning so that I can try some of the other menu delicacies that I've come to love such as the cold rice noodle vermicelli dishes and Bun Bo Hue, an already spicy soup that sounded quite good on the menu. I know I plan on adding Superior Pho on my places to return to often and take people visiting from out of town.
It has been rumored that the restaurant will be expanding into the space next door, thus increasing the number of guests they can take care of in a single seating. As long as the kitchen continues to turn out quality, tasty food like I experienced today, I don't think they'll ever have a problem filling the place up. I highly recommend you take the time to look this hidden restaurant up in order to try the food.