Restaurants seem to come and go, so it’s reassuring when something has staying power. Pho Lemongrass, a popular Vietnamese spot in Coolidge Corner, Brookline, has been a neighborhood favorite for a dozen years. The two softly lit dining rooms are filled with a mix of young professionals, families, and couples, as fragrant, colorful plates go from kitchen to table. The key to success, says manager Daisy To, is consistency. She and husband Henry Chau, who oversees the wine list and the bar, have been there since the place opened in 2000. Binh Quach is head chef, and Maggie Ly, also there from the beginning, is executive chef.
Banh xeo crepe ($10.50) is a pillowy-crisp half-moon, generously stuffed with stir-fried pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. A golden hue from turmeric and ginger powder makes it appear omelet-like, but there is not a drop of egg in the batter of rice flour, mung beans, and coconut milk. A splash of beer is the secret to its puffy texture. We wrap portions of crepe in leaf lettuce, dunk them in tangy-sweet fish sauce, and are still savoring them when the next item arrives.
Banh hoi pork ($12.95) is an assemble-your-own dish. Stir-fried minced pork comes atop plain vermicelli, along with leaves of lettuce, watercress, and matchstick-thin carrots and cucumbers. We soften wafer-thin rice wrappers in a steaming bowl of water, spoon in meat, vegetables, and noodles, dribble on fish sauce, and fold them into delectable bundles. A glass of gruner veltliner ($6.50), a crisp Austrian white wine, goes well with this dish, as does a Vietnamese lager ($4.75) called “33.”
Fisherman’s hot pot (small, three servings, $19.95; large, for a tableful, $27.95) arrives in a lidded pot on a butane-powered mini-stove. Our server adjusts the flame and soon the pot is bubbling away. We ladle some into our bowls and sip the most intense, clear seafood broth we’ve encountered anywhere. Tender calamari, shrimp, scallops, and chunks of white fish (the menu says salmon, but the chef substituted flounder that day) float amid thinly cut zucchini, yellow squash, carrot, and whole green beans. We barely touch the peanut sauce blended with hoisin and toasted crushed peanuts because we’re so enamored with the broth. We wonder why the beef broth in the pho dac biet ($8.50) isn’t similarly potent. While the noodles are perfectly cooked, topped with brisket, rare steak, tripe, and tendon, we long for soup with more intense flavor.
We also wish for more spicy heat in some dishes. Basil beef ($14.95), features thinly sliced beef, Asian basil, and snow peas stir-fried in a lemongrass marinade. It is an attractively plated dish, but so mild that we’ll ask for more zippy green chilies next time.
Similarly, Mekong curry ($15.45) stir-fried vegetables with shrimp, chicken, or beef (we get shrimp) arrive on a dainty pool of yellow curry sauce. We would have loved twice as much sauce for the rice (available white or brown).
Looking around, we notice a couple who leave untouched the red pepper condiments, basil leaves, and bean sprouts that accompany their pho. And the well-dressed young women at another table — who expressed concern about spice levels — look happy digging into their order.
But the kitchen can turn out dishes that fit our heat profile. Pepper soft-shell crab ($18.95) is outstanding, its generous pieces of shell-on crab lightly battered and fried to an addictive crunch. They come on puffed bean thread noodles with bell pepper, red onion, and jalapenos.
Young staff could use more training. One night, our server can’t answer questions about ingredients and doesn’t offer to find answers. On another, a server seems painfully shy about English, which makes communication difficult.
Fortunately, the strength of the food and the warm neighborhood atmosphere make up for it. And if you ask for the seafood broth and that gorgeous crepe you won’t need any coaching when it’s time to give your order.