The meal started with a broth tasting. Three teacups on a rectangular plate held a progression (or "flight," if you prefer drinking nomenclature) of distinct soups — dark brown, then amber-hued, then oil-slicked red. After a few moments of contemplative sipping, we were ready for the rest of the meal.
It was the kind of elegant touch I might expect at a restaurant helmed by someone like Corey Lee, Brandon Jew, or one of the other young guns of the Bay Area's fine-dining scene. But it wasn't what I expected to find at a San Leandro noodle shop called Noodles Pho Me.
This is exactly the kind of modest, family-run spot you would expect a restaurant with a name like that to be — the kind where $20 can buy dinner for two, and where the owners' friendly nieces and nephews make up the majority of the staff.
But for a humble neighborhood restaurant, Noodles Pho Me is full of surprises. The first is that, despite the prominent placement of pho — the Vietnamese noodle dish — in the name of the business, Noodles Pho Me is actually a Laotian restaurant. Chef and co-owner Cindy Sengsourith, who runs the six-month-old restaurant with her husband Thong, explained that the inspiration for opening a Laotian pho restaurant came from childhood memories of helping her mother, who made a living selling pho to soldiers at the military fort near their home in Laos. Everything else on the menu besides the pho is Lao, from the other two noodle soups to the Lao-style fermented sausages — and even the pho itself is a distinctly Lao take on the dish. More on that in a moment.
The second surprise is the aforementioned broth tasting, which was such an enjoyable and customer-friendly feature, it's a wonder that more restaurateurs haven't thought to do it. Sengsourith said the idea came out of her own frustrations as a customer. "Everywhere I go, I don't know what to order," Sengsourith said, explaining that she would always feel disappointed if a dish she ordered tasted different from what she had anticipated, or when a menu description turned out to be inaccurate. She swore that when she opened her own restaurant, she'd make sure her customers would be able to order something they knew they would like.
The most distinctive of Sengsourith's three soup bases is the pho, in part because I don't know of another restaurant in the East Bay that specializes in Lao-style pho, specifically. Sengsourith explained that in Laos, pho vendors often run their entire operation out of small canoes, which means there isn't room to offer the platter of accompanying fresh herbs you'd typically get at a Vietnamese pho restaurant. Instead, all of those condiments and garnishes — which, at Noodles Pho Me, include basil leaves and a particularly large and juicy lemon wedge — are built into the bowl ahead of time.
The main difference, though, was that the Lao-style broth was much darker, creamier, and more intensely flavored — a result of simmering bone marrow for eight to ten hours, Sengsourith said. The soup had a surprising chili kick, too, that I've never encountered at a Vietnamese pho joint, where the broths tend to be clearer in color and often have more a pronounced sweetness.
All in all, it made for one delicious bowl of noodles, but was different enough from traditional pho that you'd almost be better off thinking of it as a different dish altogether. That's especially true if you pay an extra $0.99 for the "combo" version, which comes with beef and seafood (i.e., fish balls, shrimp, and squid), which I've never seen included in a Vietnamese pho. Somehow, with the broth's intense spicing, it worked.
The two other noodle soups that Noodles Pho Me serves are dishes you'll find at other Lao restaurants, but they were just as notable. The khao poon featured an aromatic coconut-curry broth and round, slippery, spaghetti-like rice noodles, and was topped with a mass of shredded chicken and cabbage. The soup had an addictive quality that stemmed from the fact that it had that coconut-milk fragrance, but unlike other coconut curries, never veered too far toward sweetness. One of my tablemates pronounced this her favorite.
The other decisively favored the khao soy, which had seasoned ground pork; wide, flat ho fun noodles; and a deeply savory tomato-based broth infused with the funk of fermented soybeans. This, too, could be upgraded to a seafood-laden "combo," which was a decision we didn't regret. My only wish was for the khao soy to have a bit more chili heat. (It had almost none.) All three soups come in a "small" or "regular" size — and the "regular" is so enormous that only those with hearty appetites will be able to polish off the entire bowl.
While the noodle soups are the clear star of the menu, the restaurant also serves a number of other Lao specialties, though the selection is less extensive than you'll find at Oakland's best Lao restaurants, for instance — places like Souk Savanh and Vientian Cafe. But most everything that Noodles Pho Me does serve is better than solid. There was the pungent, if not-quite-five-alarm-spicy, Lao-style papaya salad; the Chinese-influenced "Drunken Noodle" stir-fry that was available as a special; and the maraschino cherry-topped version of mango sticky rice that ended one of our meals.
One highlight was the sai gok, or Lao-style sour sausage, which comes with stir-fried green beans and your choice of steamed white rice or sticky rice. Get the sticky rice to eat this the proper Lao way, using small handfuls of it to pick up the green beans and slices of the crisp-skinned sausage. Sengsourith doesn't make the sausages herself and instead buys them, at least for now, from a sausage-maker in Sacramento, but she does roast tomatoes in-house to make her own jeow, or chili dip, which she likened to "Lao salsa." It was the ideal complement to the sausages and the sticky rice.
As a food writer, it's tempting to chalk a restaurant like this up as some obscure find. But the truth of the matter is that in my experience the fine people of San Leandro are great about supporting their local, homegrown restaurants, and they clearly already know about the place. Noodles Pho Me was bustling during my two visits — one on a weeknight and the other during the weekend lunch rush.
And why shouldn't it be? As tasty as the food is, the restaurant's popularity might be the least surprising thing about it.