Monday, December 13, 2010

Fun Playing with Pho . . . in Solon!

On November 23, 2010, Cleveland food writer Douglas Trattner posted a hilarious video he made to YouTube, which represents, he says, "a conversation I seem to have on a daily basis" as a food writer. Doug is one of my idols, in that he has successfully transitioned from a career in law to a career in food. I had a good laugh when I first saw this, and I hope that you do too, though there is also an eerie truthfulness to the story. But surely, it is mere coincidence that Doug's video protagonist lives in the same town that I live in, Solon Ohio.

I moved to Solon for reasons very different than the person depicted in Doug's video - I have no children (I find the husband quite sufficient), but Bob wanted to move as far away from "the city" as I'd let us after we married. I'm a city girl, but I respected his desire for a big  vegetable garden in our back yard and we both wanted a big kitchen to cook in. Thus, Solon was our compromise. And Doug's humor about Jimmy Daddona's Restaurant notwithstanding - there aren't a lot of bold dining choices out our way (though if you read this blog, you'll find the ones that we do have!).

Doug's video flooded back into my frontal lobes over the last week when we stopped into a place that was for years a ubiquitous Americanized Chinese take out joint called "Mandarin Express." If you wanted cheap and quick fried rice, egg rolls or General Tso's Chicken, this was a  popular choice, located in the same strip mall containing Solon's lone supermarket, Giant Eagle, at the intersection of Route 91 (SOM Center Road) and Route 43 (Aurora Road). I knew that the space had been remodeled to accommodate dining in a few years ago, and that the owners tried bringing in Karaoke, but the food was always gloppy and unimpressive - the epitome of suburban blah. So we had ignored it. 

Until recently, when a local monthly ad-zine included a half-page ad for Mandarin Express that referred to it as "Mandarin Pho Express" and that stated that Vietnamese cuisine was now on the menu. I pulled the page out and mentioned to Bob that we should try it. The coupons expired at the end of November, and as I pitched the page, I reminded Bob that we should try it. 

Well, the Sunday before last, home from a weekend in Cincinnati, snow falling, with no dinner in the house, we finally tried it. And I am not only pleased that we did, but hope to get the word out, to those of you who appreciate home-style cooking in a very casual atmosphere, to give Mandarin Pho Express a try.

Mandarin Pho Express is a Mom and Pop operation. Pop is owner and chef Shan, who hails from Hong Kong. Mom is Shan's wife Kathy, a native of Vietnam. They have two adorable small children, who you may well meet if you stop by.

So the Sunday before last, we slid in from the cold, itching for some hot and tasty Pho. We were the only customers at first, though another couple (of Asian extraction - always a good sign when dining in an ethnic restaurant) eventually joined us. A few take out orders also came through while we were dining. Kathy explained that the Vietnamese menu was her idea and inspiration. She missed these things, and so taught her husband to re-create some of her favorite comfort foods. There are also three Korean dishes on the Noodles section of the menu, inspired by Korean Solonites who are regular customers and who requested them, so Chef Shan added them. The menu also lists four options for Pad Thai.

We started with an order of Cha Gio - crispy spring rolls stuffed with pork, mushrooms and onions and served with fish-sauce based Vietnamese dipping sauce.


The flavors were fresh and the skins crispy - but not as hot to the touch or throughout the interior as I expected. I asked Kathy about the spring rolls on our second visit - they are made from scratch in house.  I'm guessing that they freeze them. Temperature notwithstanding, we enjoyed both the rolls and the dipping sauce.

Condiments for Pho

Pho Tai - Beef Noodle Soup with Slices of Rare Beef

The tender, pink beef slices fully cook in the steaming hot broth. While I cannot shake the soft spot in my heart and palate for Asiatown's Superior Pho, which is perhaps more assertively seasoned, this bowl of soup was deeply satisfying and very tasty. And two minutes from my house.

My Pho, topped with fresh mint and bean sprouts, a squeeze of lime, and a ring of Sriracha sauce - perfect!

Pho Tai Bo Vien - Beef Noodle Soup with Beef Balls and Rare Beef

Bob's selection was the same as mine, with the addition of beef meatball halves. I would have liked the meatballs a little hotter (they must have been very deeply chilled before being heated and added to the soup) - but the flavors and textures were lovely. Bob was delighted with his dish, and brought almost half of his bowlful home as leftovers. Doggie bag, anyone?

Saturday brought us back to Mandarin Express for lunch, after a trip to the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square. I wasn't sure if Chef Shan remembered us initially - he and Kathy were a little preoccupied with their little one, who wasn't feeling well. Again, the place was empty of customers, though a four top came through while we dined, and several take out orders.

I knew that I wanted to try the Vietnamese Black Pepper Beef appetizer I'd seen on the menu during our first visit; I'd wing it after that. 

Bo Luc Lac Appetizer -  Beef with Onion and Black Pepper

Though the tenderloin was nicely cooked, it lacked a strong black pepper zip. When I asked Shan about this, he offered to re-make it, explaining that when they first started serving the spicier fare, the locals would often find it too spicy, so they reduced the spice levels to ensure happy customers. We assured him that we understood and not to worry - and we still enjoyed the dish. However, should you want more authentic spicing on this (or any) dish, all you need to do is say that you like a lot of pepper and he will make it so! 

We loved the caramelized onions and the crunch of the lettuce with this. But we had barely dented the massive portion of steak (a tremendous value at $12) when our entree bowls came to the table. So we had a lot of leftovers, which was just fine with us! Yes Doug, we did take a second doggie bag home.

Mi Ga - Vietnamese Egg Noodle Soup with Chicken

This was Bob's entree - and I am pleased to know that such rich chicken noodle soup is so close to my house should I fall ill this winter!

Chef Shan brought us bowls for sharing - this was my taste of Bob's lunch. The toothy nuts and crispy shallots added great texture to the chickeny goodness!

Bun dac biet - House Special Vermicelli with Springroll and grilled pork slices, dipping sauce

Rice noodles were topped with succulently grilled pork slices, and covered a fresh cold salad of lettuce, cucumber, sprouts, cilantro, scallions and nuts. Mixed all together and drizzled with the fish-sauce based dipping liquid below, it was a hearty lunch. This springroll was blazing hot throughout, with lots of crunch and lots of mushrooms, which I found strangely appealing (I normally do not care for the texture of mushrooms).

Again, owing to the taste of the local clientele, the fish sauce and chilies were less prominent in the dip than they might otherwise have been. But the overall taste was delicious, and our hosts were eager to please in any way that they could. If you like your food authentically spicy, just tell them so and you will be rewarded.

We enjoyed our leftover beef cubes in breakfast Sunday morning. I caramelized the winter tomato slices from the take-out box, then added the beef, the thin sauce, and a lot more freshly ground black pepper to a saute pan - I let it thicken and braise a bit in the pan, then scrambled a couple of eggs and added fresh cilantro and scallion. We had four potato latkes (pancakes) left from Hanukkah last week - and the combination of egg, steak and pancake in a single bite turned out to be sublime. 

I don't belive that Mandarin Express has an alcohol license, and the room is very casual (clean, but the back end reflects the family nature of the place). The food is worthy of a stop if you are in the neighborhood and love a great bowl of noodles, a spring or summer roll, or some tasty meats and vegetables. Prices for these entree-sized bowls of goodness range from $7.50-9, and the Korean and Pad Thai options range from  $8-11. And I am thrilled to able to get a steamy, delicious bowl of Pho so close to my suburban home!

And so Doug - adventurous eating in the far reaches of Solon - who'd have thunk it? I surely didn't expect to find Vietnamese or Korean food in Solon, until I played with the food at Mandarin Pho Express. You can find Kathy and Shan and their multi-ethnic menu at 34214 Aurora Road, Solon, 440-248-9377 (no website, delivery available).

1 comment:

  1. I don't know about Mr. Trattner, but my mouth is definitely watering. Thanks for the heads up on another great place to get a good bowl of pho.