REVIEW: Jump into the Culinary Deep End at Reno’s Pho Cali

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Pho Cali on North Virginia St. and 5th St. across from Circus Circus casino serves Vietnamese and Chinese foods with flavors and textures that will light up the palates of food enthusiasts.

Pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup, was one of the first dishes I fell in love with outside my comfort zone about a decade ago. At that time, I was working my way through college. My job in insurance granted me a one-hour lunch, a luxury that was new to me. I didn’t know it then, but that little extra bit of time during my lunch period allowed me to explore a ton of restaurants I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. One of those restaurants was a Vietnamese spot. My mind was truly blown that you could purchase a giant bowl of rich, beefy soup that came with basil, jalapeño slices, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and a myriad of sauces all for only $6 – $8.

I think Reno has been serving pho for longer than ten years, but Vietnamese restaurants really started to expand in Reno around that time.

I can attest that it is easy to fall into a routine when it comes to restaurants, take-out, and even home-cooked meals. Pushing out of said food routine is absolutely critical to better understanding the world and to better understanding what is going to dazzle your taste buds. It feels risky to try a food or dish that seems totally alien when compared to what you regularly eat, but taking that risk and discovering a new favorite food is one of the best parts of life.

Since that college job 10-plus years ago, Vietnamese cuisine has fallen into my regular rotation. I eat it about once a month. That being said, I’ve only sampled a fraction of the many wonderful Vietnamese dishes available.

Ever heard of an elephant ear stalk? Image: Kyle Young

Heeding my own philosophy, I ordered two dishes that I had never tried before. I selected the Vietnamese pancake for $8.75 and the sweet and sour shrimp soup for $13.50. The menu lists the soup as a catfish soup, but they will substitute shrimp by request for no additional charge. Normally, I can put down an entrée and appetizer no problem. Having now dined at Pho Cali, I’m happy to report that either dish alone would make a sizable meal.

The first dish to arrive was the soup. The dish offered vibrant colors, textures, and flavors. The soup included elephant ear stalks, okra, pineapple, bean sprouts, celery, tomato, cilantro leaves and stems, and tender shrimp.

Prior to this meal, I didn’t know what an elephant ear stalk was. The plant looks a little bit like a celery stalk but with a spongy interior. The spongy texture was delightful and it absorbed the soup’s sweet and sour flavor well.

The pineapple did the heavy lifting when it came to the sweetness of the soup. I’m not positive which ingredients created the sour flavor, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the soup included tamarind and citric juice. Fish sauce deepened the flavor of the soup with its signature fishy funk. The cilantro stems and celery added crunch; the okra and tomato added a viscous quality; the elephant ear stalk added a sponginess; the shrimp added the tender protein-chew. The cook that brought out the meal advised to eat the side of white rice with the soup. I loved everything about this dish.

Wrap your mind around the many flavors and textures of the Vietnamese pancake. Image: Kyle Young

The next course was the Vietnamese pancake. The dish is composed of a crunchy rice-crepe of sorts colored yellow with a tiny bit of turmeric. Inside the savory crepe are bean sprouts, onions, green onions, chopped shrimp, and what seemed to be beef bits. By “beef bits”, I mean pieces of meat that include a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Fear not, though, the meat is delicious and adds quite a bit of flavor to the dish. Also served with the dish is a mountain of various herbs, lettuce, and delectable fish sauce.

The idea is to create lettuce wraps with crepe, filling, herbs, and fish sauce. The amount of herbs served is both staggering and wonderful. I don’t count myself an expert in identifying herbs, but after some Googling, it looked to me like there was spear mint, red perilla, cilantro, thai basil, and fish mint. Once I combined all the ingredients into a wrap, here, too, I found myself in flavor and textural paradise. Every herb brings a different flavor to the dish. The fish sauce was sweet, tangy, funky, and had a touch of heat. Conventional salads don’t have jack on Vietnamese pancakes.

Locals and students receive 20% off their orders with presentation of ID. This deal is available Monday through Friday and excludes holidays.

Pho Cali is located at 440 N. Virginia Street, Suite C in downtown Reno. They are open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m to 10 p.m. They are closed on Tuesdays. Call 775-470-8272 for your next take-out order.

Kyle Young
About Kyle Young 42 Articles
Kyle Young is a local freelance writer. He offers content writing, blog posts, copywriting, and editing services. His current writing foci are food, cooking, and the oddities native to Reno, Sparks, and Tahoe. He graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor’s degree in English writing. He gained some food chops while working as a dishwasher, line-cook, and food-truck operator. He learned quality control, imports/exports, and logistics at a local spice and seasoning manufacturer. When not hustling as a writer, he plays Scrabble, cooks, wrangles three pups, and attends live music/comedy with his fiancé.