You can't judge an eatery by its exterior. Pho Vinh Vietnamese restaurant is a prime example. The plain exterior, the side-street location and the worn parking lot hardly beckon passersby to pull in.
Parking is in the back and that's where you enter as well. And once inside, the transformation begins.
Just a few steps in at the reception desk, guests are graciously greeted at a rich wood structure that was likely intended to be a bar in another setting.
The dining room is arranged with a mix of square and round tables. The décor is simple and elegant.
This was once the home of 4-5-6 Chinese restaurant. Then, under new ownership and a strange flip of the last numeral, the location became 4-5-9. In 2009, Pho Vinh emerged. (As 4-5-6, this was a favorite go-to place for Chinese food back in the day.)
We started our meal with two plump summer rolls ($2.95) packed with roast pork and shrimp. A thick peanut sauce with a restrained sweetness was served alongside.
The fresh green papaya salad ($9.95) is a traditional Vietnamese salad made with julienned tropical fruit, shrimp and grilled pork. Grated green papaya may lack the sultry, sweet flavor that most Floridians think of when they add papaya to recipes. But the green papaya's crunchy, cucumber-like texture and mild flavor make it an ideal base for light salads tossed with the complex ingredients of Vietnamese cookery.
Our appetizers out of the way, it was time to move on to the main event.
The word pho refers to beef soup, the large bowls of aromatic broth that are staples of Vietnamese restaurants. And the soups are a strong suit here.
From the pork-chicken noodle soup portion of the menu, the thap cam ($8.95) combines shrimp, snow crab, roasted pork, wonton and noodles. Before the pho is served, a large platter of ultra-fresh Thai basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapenos and lime wedges is presented. These garnishes allow guests to ramp up the soup with flavor and texture to suit their taste.
The full-flavored broth was earthy and heavenly on its own. But a spritz of citrus, a fiery pop from the peppers, the clean crunch of a slender sprout or the mellow flavors of quickly steeped fresh herbs add creative nuances.
Pho is serious soup. This is not hot liquid du jour ladled into a cup at a diner. In Vietnamese restaurants, the bowls of pho are large and the elements are the ultimate foodie melting pot.
Phos come with rice, cellophane or egg noodles. I liked the richness of the egg noodles in my thap cam.
Pho Vinh has a lengthy menu that may be overwhelming to newcomers. Servers were helpful and you can learn a lot by checking out food brought to other tables and using that as a starting point for asking questions.
email@example.com or 407-420-5498. Follow Heather McPherson on Twitter: @OS_thedish
Pho Vinh Vietnamese
Where: 657 N. Primrose Drive, Orlando
When: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
How much: $7.50-$35
Beverages: Soft drinks, beer and wine
Wines by the glass: From $5
Extras: Family-friendly, free wi-fi, good for groups, table service, takeout, takes reservations, walk-ins welcome
Noise level: Lively buzz
Wheelchair access: Easy
Credit: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Online: Phovinhorlando.com and Pho Vinh Orlando on Facebook
Dining on a budget
Most entrees are $13 or less