The flavors of Vietnamese food — garlic, lemongrass, ginger, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, chilies, fish sauce — are some of my favorites. Thankfully, and at long last, there is delicious, complexly flavored Vietnamese food in the Iowa City area, at Coralville’s Pho Zaika. Pho Zaika, also known as “I ♥ Pho,” opened early this year next to the Coralville Hy-Vee.
The family-run restaurant offers a limited yet satisfying menu that centers around pho, a traditional Vietnamese street food. Though it takes many forms in both Vietnam and the U.S., traditionally, pho is a rich, lightly spiced and herb-flecked beef broth, full of thin rice noodles and bits of meat and served with a side of sauces, fresh vegetables and herbs that diners can add to suit their tastes.
Though Pho Zaika’s broth isn’t as richly meaty as it could be, it is redolent of herbs and spices, and it’s easy to modify it to suit your tastes, using the aforementioned sides. I like to add lots of bean sprouts, all the basil and cilantro they offer, and a few rings of jalapeño, along with a squirt or two of sriracha and hoisin and just a splash of fish sauce. Diners can select their choice of meats, or they can go all-in with the “house special pho,” which contains round steak, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatballs; I prefer the simplest version, featuring only tender slices of round steak. The addictive combination of savory broth and chewy rice noodles is a comforting, nourishing distraction on a leisurely Sunday.
Pho Zaika also offers chicken pho, which is on par with its beefy counterpart in terms of flavor and nuance; be forewarned that there will be bones in the meaty chunks of chicken that accent your soup. In keeping with the lowbrow nature of this traditional street food, it’s totally okay to pluck a piece from the broth and chew the meat off the bones — and you’ll want to, as the meat is tender and succulent.
Recently, Pho Zaika expanded their small menu to include com tam, which means “broken rice,” referring to the pile of steamed, broken grains of rice that serve as the centerpiece of the dish. Joining the rice on a vast platter is a gigantic pork chop that has been marinated in garlic and fish sauce and grilled to caramelized glory. The pork is flanked by a fried egg, a slice of egg-and-pork meatloaf, fresh cucumber, shredded pork skin, savory dipping sauce and a palate-cleansing, mildly sweet and delicate broth. While it can be confusing to determine the order in which to eat this array, what matters is that you eat it — I have no idea how they get the pork to be so flavorful, but its depth and balance of garlicky, savory flavor is phenomenal. Pho Zaika also recently started offering Vietnamese curries, which are more mild than their Thai relatives but similar in their use of coconut milk and lemongrass. Mix the last of your curry sauce with rice, and it becomes a savory sort of rice pudding that will both thrill and comfort you.
The decor and atmosphere at Pho Zaika are charming yet eclectic. On any given visit, a subtitled Vietnamese martial arts film may play on one of the dining room televisions, while dining-room music runs the gamut from LeAnn Rimes to Vietnamese soft rock. There are inspirational quotes often written on the chalkboard by the cash register — most recently, diners were implored to “Try what you have not tried…Does not matter!!!” — and notes taped to the tables inviting customers to ask for more vegetables for their pho if they desire. The front-of-house staff members, who serve as hosts, servers, bussers and cashiers, are usually friendly and always accommodating, though proper protocol in the dining room is unclear: Is it correct to order at the counter, or will there be table service? Will I receive a check, or do I go up to the counter to pay? These little snags in presentation and service are inconsequential, ultimately, in a restaurant where the food is both spellbindingly delicious and wholly satisfying.
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This article was originally published in Little Village issue 177