In December, a fast food version of a Vietnamese pho and banh mi sandwich shop opened at Tacoma Mall. What the Pho Express is to pho what Taco del Mar is to burritos. Diners stand in line, instructing a counter worker to build a bowl of soup or a banh mi sandwich from a line of ingredients. Another way to look at it: It's like Subway - with bread that's just as spongy. I applaud the concept, but the flavors were underwhelming. For diners in parts of the country that are absent of spectacular Southeast Asian dining, the concept is brilliant as a means for funneling Vietnamese flavors to the masses.
AAs Vietnamese hole-in-walls, the food at What the Pho Express offers dull and muddy flavors - there's no fish sauce to be found (counter workers told me so), pickled vegetables tasted too anemic, the bread - even toasted -was spongy instead of that banh mi bread that is so crunchy, it shatters bread shards down your shirt. You know you've had a good banh mi if you walk out of the restaurant wearing stray shards of a crunchy baguette. Pho is a soup that can range from timid to blast-your-palate deep with dimensional aromatics (anise, anyone?)