October 21, 2010

Large Selection of Gluten-Free Vietnamese Food Available at Boulder’s Black Pepper Pho

By Evan Sandsmark -  

There is much to admire about Vietnamese food. It’s delicious, reasonably easy to find (at least in Boulder, for whatever reason), and, as we learned this afternoon, overwhelmingly gluten-free, at least at Black Pepper Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant located near Pearl Street and 28th. After learning that Black Pepper Pho has GF items available, we decided to stop by for a meal. We weren’t disappointed.

The first thing we noticed upon walking in the door is that the interior kind of resembles a Noodles & Company. At first, we found this a little strange (but certainly not bad, we hasten to add – there’s nothing wrong with the interior of Noodles), but then we remembered that this space once housed a Noodles, so it makes sense. Despite the similarities, Black Pepper Pho has distinguished its interior in its own way. Shades of light green blanket the walls, and a small piece of fresh bamboo sits atop every table. There are also decorative light fixtures that hang from the ceiling above all the tables. They look like bouquets of white roses, with the center of one rose serving as part of the petal of another. The soft shades of green, coupled with the white lights overhead, work well together, and with a sweeping glance around the dining room, the full color scheme is revealed at once, enhancing the visual atmosphere.

Once seated at our table, we were offered water, which came in what looked like an antique French bottle that was once used for serving lemonade. Impressed, we drank the water, which was borderline warm, but we were too busy admiring the bottle to care. We scanned the menu, and much to our delight almost every item is gluten-free (with the exception of the alcoholic drinks, of which at least the majority did not appear to be GF, and our server confirmed as much). Evey appetizer is gluten-free, so we decided to try the pork egg rolls, which are made with pork (obviously), shredded taro, bean-thread noodles, mushroom, shallot, garlic, and black pepper rolled in rice paper. These ingredients are wrapped together tightly, forming a fairly skinny roll (at least by egg-roll standards), which is then deep fried, ensuring that the final product will be delicious, and indeed it was. The egg rolls were very crispy, which we liked, and the crunch of the fried rice paper complimented the piping hot, savory contents well. Overall, the texture and taste were great, so the egg rolls make a good start to a meal for one or two people. The only problem is that they are served with a tamarind dipping sauce, which is probably good, but it also contains wheat, alas. Other appetizers include two additional types of egg rolls, as well as a couple of salads, and again they are all without gluten.

Just like the appetizers, every entrée on the menu is gluten-free, with the exception of the sandwiches, which all have gluten. (But who wants to go to a Vietnamese restaurant to order a BBQ Pork sandwich, which is actually one of their options? Given our overall impression of the place, the sandwiches are probably good, but still.) This means that the several rice and meat entrées are fair game, as are the “bún bowls,” which feature meats, vegetables, and/or tofu mixed with rice noodles. These dishes are more or less as they seem – that is, they are made with meats and vegetables that are mixed with rice or rice noodles – so let’s move on to the pho (otherwise known as “rice noodle soup”), which is the dish we tried.

More specifically, we ordered the steak and brisket pho, which is one of the nine soups available, and every one of them is gluten-free. The first thing to be said about the pho is that despite the fact that it’s technically a soup, it’s a pretty serious meal. We ordered the regular size, and our server practically brought out (no more than 15 minutes after ordering, we might add) a kiddie pool filled with meat, rice noodles, and slow-cooked beef broth. (Near the small bar area by the kitchen, we later learned that there is a little display that explains the bowl sizes; evidently, the regular size bowl holds 44 ounces, and the large something like 60 ounces, so yeah, there’s a lot.)

With the substantial bowl of pho came a plate of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, lime, and jalapeño. At first, we weren’t sure what to make of this, especially since the fresh herbs, which dominated the plate, are basically entire plant shoots with several leaves (are we really supposed to put this entire plant in our soup?), so we started eating the dish, adding a little GF Chili Garlic sauce to give the dish some spice. Eventually, after eating about a third of the bowl, we noticed that there were other sides under the fresh herbs, like a slice of lime. Once added, the lime juice contributed a nice dimension to the dish, as citrus often does. The lime also helped control the taste of cilantro present in the broth. For the most part, the cilantro wasn’t a problem because the broth merely compliments a bite of noodles and meat. However, when we tried just a spoonful of broth by itself, the cilantro seemed a little heavy, and the lime helped cancel it out. The bean sprouts also added an element to the pho that would be lacking without them, namely, a little crunch, which helped even out the dish’s overall texture. Then again, we are talking about bean sprouts – not one of the most popular foods in the world, we would imagine – so don’t get too excited about the role they may play in your dish.

With regard to the meat, the steak and brisket were both good, if somewhat indistinguishable. From what we could gather, the brisket was served in slightly larger pieces than the steak, and had a slightly tougher texture – not to a problematic extent, though; the brisket just took a little more work to chew than the steak. Finally, we mustn’t forget the rice noodles, which were remarkably flavorful given that they are, well, rice noodles. Because rice noodles lack a defining taste by themselves, they really thrive in a dish like pho because of the strong flavor of the broth. Once the noodles absorb the broth, they became a solid vehicle (as opposed to liquid vehicle) by which to taste the pho’s diverse flavors.

Finally, there are three items on the dessert menu, two of which are gluten-free, the rice pudding and the gelato. Given the trough of pho we were brought earlier, however, we couldn’t find the appetite to try either, even though the gelato, as always, sounded good.

Given the number of GF items on the menu, and given that we have no reason to assume that the other dishes were any less tasty than ours, Black Pepper Pho is certainly worth a try.

Black Pepper Pho’s menu can be found here (PDF):

http://www.blackpepperpho.com/sites/default/files/Menu.pdf

And the restaurant’s address:
2770 Pearl St
Boulder CO 80302

Note: This is the inaugural article of a new series presented by GlutenFreeInBoulder.com. On a (roughly) weekly basis, we will visit a restaurant, try a couple of dishes, and write about our experience. We will, of course, be sampling exclusively gluten-free food so we can report back to our readers about the dishes worth having. If you would like us to review a particular restaurant with gluten-free options, send an email to info@glutenfreeinboulder.com. We’ll try our best to check it out!

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