Dining in Davis: Pho King IV

In Review: Pho King IV
226 Third St.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Food: ***
Ambiance: ****
Cost: $$

Key
Food and ambiance quality
**** I’m dining here every day
*** Almost like eating at home
** Better than my roommate’s cooking
* Only if I’m starving

Budget
$$$$ chancellor $20+
$$$ professor $15-20
$$ graduate student/alum $10-15
$ undergraduate $5-10

Learning at an early age that food is as good as the ware in which it is cooked and the place in which it is eaten, I’ve always tried to parallel my habits of home with my preference of restaurants. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking McDonald’s or a four-star restaurant in the closest big city — ambiance and a tended-to setting matter.

Pho King IV, the fourth addition to the Pho King chain, has this figured out. Located on the corner of Third and University, close to the faddish cafe of the same name, the weeks-old Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant is a special medium between the sensibilities of the traditional Asian home and the air of university life.

The exterior architecture is organic. Situated inconspicuously amid trees and with noticeably earthly features – woods and use of clay tones – I immediately felt the authenticity so crucial to local joints serving traditional food.

When I walked in, I couldn’t help but immediately notice the large assortment of candy inside the glass register. I’m talking a mouthwatering array of Skittles to Welch’s Fruit Snacks, in every flavor! People in college are young enough to still appreciate that. I certainly did.

I was seated immediately, which is something anyone who has ever been to a restaurant could appreciate. At this point, I almost started to feel like I was in a different country. It’s an effect culturally-themed restaurants always have on me, which is good.

The ambiance was calm and natural. I felt like everyone knew exactly what they wanted to order, while I on the other hand had no idea. After all, before visiting the restaurant, I’d had pho a few times but had no idea that the “Pho” in Pho King is pronounced “fah” as opposed to the craggy, caveman-reminiscent “foh!”

The interior atmosphere was no less homespun than the outside. With various framed portraits illustrating what I presumed to be scenic views of Vietnam proper to the modestly sized interior itself, Pho King IV can make one feel traveled.

My waiter, dressed simply in a white t-shirt and blue jeans as if lounging around the house, brought over a large menu and informed me about the day’s specials. Sadly, I could barely understand his English. I asked him his name three times, but my shrug of an “oh, okay” after the third probably gave off the impression that I couldn’t understand that either.

I’d heard once that there’s no better way to start a Vietnamese meal than with a plate of spring rolls, so naturally that’s what I had first. I ordered two shrimp rolls ($3.95). Neatly wrapped in an outer layer around vermicelli, the taste was nothing more than what one would expect from such a simple dish, but I did find pleasure in the rolls’ freshness. Steaming hot, requiring a few frustrating pauses along the way, it was the perfect displeasure found in just-prepared food.

The Pho Tai (beef noodle soup with sliced steak) was the best I’ve ever had. Although arguably a bit pricey for the portion – $5.45 for a small – the taste was authentically back-alley Asian. The broth, made with bony bits better not seen, is the real draw. Granted that opinions about pho perfection are largely a matter of personal taste, I believe great broth is where it’s at.

For my main dish, I surprised myself with the Kung Pao chicken ($7.45), one of the few Chinese dishes Pho King offers. More authentic than the gourmet versions offered by restaurants like P.F. Chang’s and with different vegetables than I’d had at other Chinese spots – chopped celery and carrots – it was surprisingly good. The key was the sauce. Walking a fine line between sweet and spicy, every few bites the flavor seemed to switch between the two. The portion was quite large considering the price; I barely finished.

All in all, Pho King IV is definitely a place I suggest for all those who, like me, appreciate the collective episode of the restaurant experience as opposed to just the food itself. There’s an intangible aesthetic here detectable from the effect it has on the palate and the general mood. It belongs in Davis. Needless to say, I left a generous tip.

ISAIAH SHELTON can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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