Pho 212100 Rogers Ave. Fort Smith AR 2901 479.494.7447
Here’s the way things work in Fort Smith. If you’re going to be a kick-ass Vietnamese restaurant, you’re probably going to need to be in some building that was once quite obviously something else. Pho Vietnam, for instance, is in the old gas station. Green Papaya is in an old Dairy Queen. Pho Hoang on the other hand, is in what we think used to be a Mexican restaurant, but at least was something less iconically restaurant-shaped than the others. This is why Pho Hoang, while awfully good, is not quite as good as the others. If it were in, say, an old Pizza Hut, the food would taste that much better.
That’s why it’s lucky that Pho 21 is in a building that we think was originally a Church’s Chicken, though it still looks to us like the KFC we remember. You can paint a roof turquoise, but that shape ain’t ever going to look Vietnamese. But see, according to our Fort Smith Eats Law of Vietnamese Restaurant Buildings, this means the food’s pretty solid.
This is the place at Rogers and 21st St. that had an almost inscrutable but highly designed sign made for its large permanent post. We almost got into more than one wreck at that intersection by driving too slowly, as we tried to figure out what all the shapes and symbols meant. Then finally, we were able to see that if you squinted just so and looked in the mid-distance you could see it said “Pho 21,” but that the “o” was a bowl of soup and the other zingbatty numbers looked like they came out of 1983. Luckily, we must not have been the only ones to not be able to tell what the restaurant’s name was, because a few months ago we noticed they’d replaced that (surely expensive) sign with something simpler. Alas, we wish we had a copy of the original to share, but no.
You don’t care about the signage, though. You want to know if this place has decent food.
Our favorite thing we’ve found so far here are the fresh spring rolls.
One thing we’ve noticed is that Fort Smith’s Vietnamese places don’t put as many fresh herbs inside the spring rolls as we’d like. But Pho 21 puts in plenty.
Now we have a confession. The next entree may not be available anymore. Well, of course, we ate ours up, but when we looked at the menu on our last visit, nowhere did we see any sort of BBQ pork chop bun (rice noodles) dish. Then again, maybe it’s one of those things they can do up in no time in the kitchen but didn’t include on the new menu. You might ask, because it was worth ordering again.
Intrigued by what’s in the bowl? Let’s take a closer look at this beauty.
We love the Bun, but it’s not very adventurous. So, for you guys, we decided to order a new appetizer. Cha tom chien, we would swear translates as Cat Tom Dog, but the menu assures us that it means shrimp balls. Sounds good, sure. We like shrimp. We like balls. And they come on a stick, so HELLO, that equals tasty fair food, no?
Eh, not so much. Shrimp balls seem to be made of shrimp that’s gone through the McNugget reconstituted protein process, giving it that disturbingly un-shrimpy texture. Plus, their poor, open, deep-fried mouths just seem to be screaming in pain. So, we’re not saying Pho 21 doesn’t have good shrimp balls. Pho 21 may have the world’s best shrimp balls. But Fort Smith Eats’ shrimp-ball ordering days are over. Altogether over. We’re going back to our spring rolls next time, unless someone has a better suggestion.
We haven’t tried it yet but the Vietnamese sandwiches on the menu, the Banh mi, they look fantastic. They’re typically dirt cheap, too, running just $2.49 to $2.99 each.
You might wonder how the pho is, seeing as it’s on the name of the restaurant. We thought at first it would be fun to just order whatever #21 on the menu was — Get it, #21 at Pho 21? We’re so lame sometimes, sorry — but the listings were all things like P4 and X3 and CC2. Things that sounded more like new gaming systems.
We opted for P2, the basic Pho Chin (not to be confused with a Faux Chin), a basic beef noodle soup with well-done brisket. Nothing too tripey or quail-egged or anything. What did we think? Well … it was okay. Honestly? If we’re being super-duper-double-dog-dare-us honest here? We’re not really that big on pho in general. We like the other Vietnamese dishes better. But we’re convinced we just haven’t learned to eat it right, so we keep trying. We. Will. Love. Pho. Someday.
Anyway, despite the oily surface, this was fine. We added all the accoutrements provided and experimented with the Siracha and other hot sauces. Still wished we’d ordered the bun again. But it was, to be fair, as good as any pho we’ve ever had. For what that’s worth.
Finally, our favorite thing on the menu? Some of the illustrations on the menu itself. Don’t tell Disney’s lawyers.