"Let me help," the gentleman said to us as we scanned the one-page menu at Mì Xào. "Get the beef soup. It's un-be-lievable. And put in a little of that brown sauce, and the red one if you like heat," he added, gesturing at the bottles of hoisin and sriracha on our table.
He wasn't the manager or, as far as I could tell, even in the employ of the restaurant. Just an enthusiastic customer sharing a culinary find. "We started coming here a couple of weeks ago," he said, as he turned toward the door, "and we can't get enough."
"You see," I said to my wife once our guide had made his exit. "I was right. I was totally right."
"I'm sure you were," she said with a sigh.
Back in the spring of 2011, I closed my review of the cafe at the H&L Supermarket on Rivers Avenue by predicting that once-obscure Vietnamese dishes like pho and rice paper-wrapped summer rolls would in a few years "be no more exotic to local tastebuds than tacos or pizza."
Now, I admit I take the pray-n-spray approach to culinary predictions, figuring that if I put enough of them out there at least one or two are bound to hit the mark. If you conveniently forget the dozens of others that were absurdly off-base (the return of duck a l'orange and baked Alaska, anyone?), it makes for a remarkably effective system.
And my Vietnamese-goes-mainstream pick was spot-on. This spring, pho and banh mi arrived in the heart of downtown when CO opened its doors on King Street. Now, with the opening of Mì Xào in Mt. Pleasant's Station 41 shopping center, Vietnamese food has made it all the way out to the northern 'burbs.
You can dine in at Mì Xào — there are four tables in the small front area — but it's really a take-out operation. The menu is compact: four noodle soups, four rice dishes, and four salads. If that's not enough choice, there's a build-your-own stir fry option, too, letting you pick from five types of rice and noodles as a base, then doctor it up with one of five sauces and six proteins. If my math is right, that's 150 total possible options, and a refreshing admission that, at a certain point, it all becomes permutations and combinations anyway.
But there's no need to go freelancing, for the regular menu items offer plenty of great choices. A pair of summer rolls ($4) are a cool and refreshing way to start things off, and the tender steamed dumplings ($5) are filled with tasty garlic-tinged pork.
Beef tripe and tendon, two traditional pho ingredients, didn't make the cut in the suburban version, but Mì Xào's sliced beef pho (reassuringly labeled "London broil," $8) is quite respectable. Its hearty broth brims with savory spices, and the paper-thin folds of rare beef tucked inside are tender and delicious.
In the tom yum kung ($8), a Thai soup, lime adds an unusual sweet and sour note to the chicken broth. The menu flags the soup as "spicy," but the broth has only a mild heat to it, and it contrasts pleasantly with the rich flavor of big tails-on shrimp.
A crust of spice gives the thin slices of lemongrass chicken ($10) a wonderful citrusy, peppery bite. The accompanying jas mine rice was a bit soggy the day I tried it, and the side salad that comes along for the ride is a bit of a throwaway: iceberg lettuce, onion, cuke, and bell pepper that serves primarily as a crispy support for a tasty ginger-tinged vinaigrette. But the chicken itself is delicious enough to overcome such obstacles. It even passes the ever-important refrigerator test with flying colors. After less than 24 hours in my fridge, the take-out container of leftovers was completely picked bare of those delicious little shards of spice-encrusted chicken, leaving behind just a cardboard box of white rice.
Having both dined in and ordered take-out from Mì Xào, I actually recommend the latter. When we ate there, all the dishes came to the table in takeout containers anyway, except for the pho, which was in a big white ceramic bowl with noodles and herbs and sprouts already added in. For to-go soups, the broth is packed in a clear plastic container and the contributing elements in styrofoam boxes, and it's better that way, since you can doctor up the broth to your own personal taste. There's something satisfying and elemental about tearing the basil and cilantro leaves with your bare hands and getting a fresh hit of sharp herbal flavors with each bite.
Whether you dine in or take out, a cup of the sweet, supremely floral jasmine iced tea ($1.50) is in order. It's both a refreshing beverage and a fittingly symbolic representation of East meeting South. It caps off a slate of dishes that, in comparison to the cookie cutter Chinese take-out joints that have been a staple of American food for decades, offer fresh, vibrant flavors unencumbered by sweet, gooey sauces or deep-fried grease.
Chef/owner Anh Toan Ho might well turn out to be the Lowcountry's Johnny Appleseed of pho. He started with Saigon Catering, bringing a little Vietnamese fusion to local parties, then helped the owners at CO create their King Street menu. Now, with Mì Xào, he's got his own restaurant as a base of operations.
That enthusiastic gentleman who recommended the beef soup is by no means the only Mt. Pleasanter charmed by Mì Xào's novel flavors. A steady line cycles through the door to pick up lunchtime orders, and I've heard multiple friends in my neighborhood raving about how fresh and different the food is.
These aren't beatniks with clunky hornrims and ridiculous fedoras. We're talking dental hygienists and guys who sell boats and tennis club ladies. They might even vote Republican. Pho has moved into a brick two-story and bought a mini-van. As a culinary trend, that's a very welcome development.