Renowned travel documentarian and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain often praised Vietnamese cuisine for its impeccable balance of flavors, scents, and textures—his meeting with former president Barack Obama in Hanoi even occurred over a bowl of bún chả. And the love was mutual: Today, there’s a glass box around the tables and chairs they used.
As the Midwest’s Southeast Asian culinary scene goes from strength to strength, Twin Citizens, like the late chef, have grown to adore Vietnamese fare. From classic, soul-warming soups at popular joints like Trieu Chau to savory banh mi at Trung Nam and Quang Restaurant to the more experimental fusion stylings of Ngon Bistro and Hai Hai, there’s no dearth of great Vietnamese food in town.
But Pho Lodge, a new Vietnamese restaurant co-owned by Hmong chef Po Lo, has arrived in the Twin Cities metro set on doing things just a little bit differently.
For one, when you enter the new Maplewood pho restaurant, you’re transported—not to the low, streetside stools abundant in the busy marketplaces of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but to a wooded cabin deep in the maws of big game country.
With deer heads and fish mounted on the walls, the inside is a taxidermist’s dream. TV screens feature Po Lo dressed in camouflage and perched in a tree: scenes from one of his many hunting expeditions in places like Montana and Idaho. (Po has arrived in the metro after a stint in Green Bay.)
"My wife and I enjoy the great outdoors, and we just wanted to bring that kind of concept into a pho atmosphere, where people can come in and enjoy a nice bowl of hot pho and also have that feeling like they’re in their own log cabin or cottage out in the woods,” Lo recently told the Star Tribune.
The decor may not be for the faint-hearted, but the menu is simple and streamlined. There are only a couple of drink options and no appetizers. The lone entree is pho bo, or beef noodle soup, varying only by size and in the number of beef ribs offered. The focus here is on the pho and the pho alone. Consider going for the generous Kobe Bowl; it's practically eating competition material. It comes with three ribs afloat in 60 to 70 ounces of steaming broth—roughly three times the size of a standard pho.
Even though Maplewood may seem an odd locale for a pho joint, the city actually rounds out the top five Minnesota metros with the highest Hmong populations, who make up chef Lo’s primary base of customers. We even spotted some patrons posing for photos with Lo—he is, after all, something of a pioneer when it comes to popularizing traditional Hmong spirits in peninsular Wisconsin.
It’s hard to say if Lo’s signature recipe is the best in the Twin Cities, but it is certainly good. This is well-put-together, no-frills pho starring ribs overlain with thick, sumptuous chunks of meat. If you find yourself in Maplewood with a craving for some curative noodle soup in Up North-themed environs, Pho Lodge makes for a decent stop.
1935 Beam Ave., Maplewood