Pho K.O.

Ngon Bistro defies all conventional wisdom and opens in Frogtown with elegance to burn, wine for the ages, and the best beef pho in town

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro
 799 University Ave., St. Paul
 651.222.3301

You cannot have great pho without great broth. If you disagree with me, that's it, we are just going to have to get chains and knives and finish this one in a dark alley. Because I know—I know! I know because you write to me and tell me—I know that some of you start with the idea that there is no bad pizza, no bad doughnut, no bad ice-cream cone, and then just spot-weld onto that the idea that there is no bad pho. Why, if you throw enough hot sauce, vinegar, lime juice, and bean sprouts into that classic bowl of Vietnamese soup, anything at all transforms from hot water with noodles to delicious. Right? Wrong. Wrong! Wrong like rhinestones on sewer pipes, wrong like Reese's Pieces in scones, wrong like stretch Hummers, wrong like Paris Hilton.

Am I making much ado about nothing? I don't care—I have had so many bowls of pho that were just watery aquariums where low-cost ingredients go to die that I feel beyond militant on the topic. Moreover, when I had the great, the gorgeous, the gallopingly, gargantuanly gratifying beef pho at the new Ngon Vietnamese Bistro in Frogtown, I wished to take a thousand bowls of it with me, fill a thousand Super Soaker water guns with it, and just rampage. Take that, lesser pho vendors—splat! When you try this pho, you will feel the same way: Ngon Bistro serves the best beef pho I've ever had. The broth is what does it—it's potent, hauntingly spiced and sweet, rich and beefy brown, onion-touched and herbal, peppery and anise-scented. In short, it's as complex and richly nuanced as a wedding, as dark and unforgettable as a divorce, but far quicker than either to get through. You gotta try it.

They know pho: Ngon Bistro's Jessica Ainsworth-Troung and Hai Troung
Bill Kelley
They know pho: Ngon Bistro's Jessica Ainsworth-Troung and Hai Troung

Location Info

Map

Ngon Bistro

799 University Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55104

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: Macalester/Groveland

Now, the Ngon Bistro opened in February, and the first time I looked at the menu, I did what any critic would and zeroed in on the fact that they have a large number of Euro-bistro sorts of dishes—duck confit, roast mahi mahi with a mango salad, and a sushi-grade raw tuna appetizer, as well as a remarkable wine list. Upscale comes to Frogtown? I raced over.

What I found was worth the drive: Ngon is elegant as lace curtains—which it has on its vast windows overlooking University Avenue; it also has silk-shaded light fixtures bedecked with chandelier crystals, high lemony walls that soar from bands of elegant deep ochre wainscoting, and ceiling fans with rattan blades spinning lazily overhead. Essentially, the place is a bit French colonial, but mostly French bistro, and feels like a million bucks. The wine and beer drink like a million bucks—but happily cost less.

Where to start? Let's begin with the beers, for a change: The 11 beers on the list are all local microbrews, and they all pair expertly with Vietnamese food. The Brau Brothers Pilz ($3.95) from Lucan, Minnesota, is crisp and noticeably but not overwhelmingly hoppy, giving it enough backbone to stand up to a vinegar-and-fish-sauce-dressed salad, yet lending it enough elegance to be enjoyed on its own. Summit Brewing's orange-and-cardamom-accented wheat beer, Scandia ($3.95), is a natural match with herbal spring rolls or anything featuring cilantro. Brau Brothers' malty, slightly smoky Scotch Ale ($3.95) is just the beer for a beefy pho. Ngon Bistro easily has the most thoughtful beer list I've ever seen in a Vietnamese restaurant.

As if that weren't enough, the wine list is positively dreamy. It's 17 bottles long, but good enough to rival almost all of our best local wine bars, as it's composed almost entirely of bottles gathered from small vintners working to create unique wines. The "Vivr! Vivr!" Ribera del Duero, for instance, is a rosy, smoky, earthy, but nicely acidic Spanish red ($7 a glass, $28 a bottle) that makes beef pho just sing with its winter spices and strum with great depths. The Lois Gruner Veltliner ($8.50/$34) is a crisp, highly acidic, but nicely aromatic Austrian white that pairs perfectly with the various sweet and herbal accents in a bun salad. There's really not a bad wine on this spectacular little list, but if you really want to impress your date, you could summon a bottle of the creamy, fragrant as a fruit basket, yet elegantly mineral-edged Riesling from Max Ferd. Richter, a 300-year-old family-run vineyard in Germany's Mosel river valley ($34). Actually, the more I think about it, the more I yearn for you to take a date to Ngon Bistro, pronto, because you are going to appear so impressive with your tri-level mastery of fine global wines, superb local beers, and authentic Vietnamese food.

When it comes to Ngon Bistro's food, the most important thing to realize is that you have to get the pho. Did I mention that? They have five versions. My favorite is the traditional multi-beef pho dac biet ($6.95)—rice noodles with six different beef cuts suspended in the sweet, spicy world of its broth, including fragrant, toasty beef meatballs, meltingly gelatinous fatty bits, meaty brisket, tripe, and so on; each of the sorts of beef has been so well treated on its journey to the pho bowl that it tastes fresh and distinct—finish the bowl and you have eaten the whole world. Still, I know there are many of you who prefer to lead a life free of tripe, and for you there is a lovely version made with thin slices of beef rib-eye steak ($8.95). I emphasize ordering the pho not just because it's the best in town, but also because it probably will not be the first thing you think to get. This is because you find it on the reverse side of the one-page menu, and there are so many appealing dishes on the first page that you may never think to flip the menu over.

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