It’s not often that a restaurant brings the boy band Hanson to mind, or their uncannily addictive 1997 hit song, MMMBop. But every time my husband, Sean, and I drive past the sign for Pho Bac in Evans, he immediately begins singing Hanson’s MMMBop, subbing in the words Pho Bac.
So it’s no wonder that the restaurant was on my mind, or that for weeks, my friends and I had been talking about making a date to have Vietnamese hot pot at Pho Bac. Hot pot – also known as steamboat or shabu-shabu in other Asian cultures – is the original fondue cooking. You get a pot of boiling broth on a hot plate, assorted meats and vegetables to cook in the broth, plus rice or noodles and sauces.
I’d had shabu-shabu at Japanese restaurants before and had been craving it ever since I’d seen that Pho Bac offered it.
Sean wasn’t so impressed. “You mean we have to cook it ourselves?”
Eight of us met to try it out. Even though it was a Friday night, we were seated immediately at one of Pho Bac’s long tables. Formerly a steak and seafood restaurant, Pho Bac’s owners have made the space their own, with a pretty water feature outside and light colors, plants, fresh flowers and sculptural pendant lamps inside. There’s the requisite TV, usually tuned to the Food Network, and if you come on the right night, karaoke.
Opened in 2009, it’s the only restaurant in Augusta offering 100 percent Vietnamese cuisine: everything from its namesake pho – a rich broth teeming with rice noodles and your choice of meats, garnished with green onions, white onions, Thai basil, Thai chili peppers, bean sprouts, lemon or lime wedges, and coriander or cilantro – to fried rice dishes, stews and French-Vietnamese sandwiches.
“We serve hot pot” is proudly announced on its sign.
Only four of us ended up ordering hot pot. “Each one feeds two, maybe three people,” said our waiter. We were hungry, so we ordered both the meat and the seafood versions.
We got even hungrier as the rest of our table got their food. Then, two hot plates arrived, followed by bowls of rice vermicelli and egg noodles (“The egg noodles are for the meat and the rice noodles are for the fish,” said our waiter), and dishes of fish sauce. Then, two platters, so large that the four of us all scooted back from the table a little, were placed on the burners.
Each platter was made with a bowl of broth in the center, which started to steam almost immediately as the burners were activated, with a wide, wide rim holding all the ingredients.
Our four friends who had decided not to go the hot-pot route oohed and aahed with jealousy.
On the meat side, there was flank (fatty slices), steak (leaner) and beef meatballs, which we had swapped for the beef tendon that comes with the order (tendon is exactly what it sounds like and is a bit chewy).
The seafood order came with slices of beef, white fish, fish balls, shrimp and mussels. Both platters were also heaped with mounds of vegetables including baby carrots, bamboo shoots, bok choy, napa cabbage, squash, zucchini and Chinese broccoli.
The amount of food was almost overwhelming, but my friend Grace stood up and briskly took charge. As the owner of an at-home hot pot, she picked up her chopsticks and began expertly layering the ingredients in our meat version.
“You put the meat in first,” she explained, “and the vegetables later because you don’t want them to overcook. It’s all about the order.”
Once the meats were done – which took only moments – we served ourselves noodles and Grace topped our bowls with ladlefuls of hot broth and meats. Some hot pots start off with bland liquids that build flavor as the meats and vegetables are added; Pho Bac’s broth, however, is hearty and fully flavored, which made for savory eating as we quietly slurped our noodles. Grace tipped the vegetables in next, and we took second, then third helpings.
Grace went through the same preparations for the seafood hot pot, which took a shorter amount of time because the fresh fish, shrimp and mussels cooked more quickly. We noticed the table behind us had also ordered hot pot, and had their own Grace going through the same motions. And like us, they had ordered two hot pots – but for eight people.
We were glad when the rest of our table, unable to resist, crowded around for a taste as the four of us slowed down. The seafood version was lighter, with a zingier broth that tasted like Thai coconut soup, but without the coconut milk. It was fresh and would be a great meal for a spring evening.
We made it to the bottom of the hot pot, but just barely. And in the meantime, there was a lot of laughter, chatter and sharing. The entire experience was very social and very Asian. It was communal eating at its best, with a capable “mom” poised over the cooking pot.
As we left, my husband began humming MMMBop again, but this time, it seemed appropriate. You might find Pho Bac just as addictive.
WHERE: Pho Bac, 4300 Evans Towne Centre
HOURS: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 945-1981, www.phobacaugusta.com, email@example.com, or find them on Facebook and Twitter