Why would any reasonable person drive to Fort Smith for lunch? "It's all about the sandwich," a friend said. Or this, said with the same sort of evangelical solemnity that comes with an invitation into a secret society: "It's like there's something magical inside of it." I was skeptical when I drove to Fort Smith for lunch the first time. It was 10 years ago, when I was living in Fayetteville. At the time, I was only risking 45 minutes each way. In the intervening years, I've spent a big part of my life away from Northwest Arkansas — living out of state and, more recently, in Little Rock — and I've returned to the question of why drive to Fort Smith for lunch often, only now it goes like this: Why am I not driving to Fort Smith for lunch today?
A reasonable person, it turns out, would/should drive to Fort Smith for lunch to get the No. 82, the star of the voluminous menu at Pho Vietnam — the vegetarian banh mi sandwich. Like Korean BBQ tacos, the Sriracha hot dog and other pinnacles of global cuisine, the vegetarian banh mi sandwich thrives at the intersection of two really different food cultures. In this case, it's the marriage of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian ingredients like pickled carrots and onions, tofu, hoisin, Sriracha, hot peppers and cilantro with two powerhouses from the French, freshly baked, crusty baguette bread and that magical emulsion, mayonnaise. Eating Pho Vietnam's banh mi involves crunchy, salty, spicy, sweet and tart taste sensations all at once. And each sandwich is only $2.95. Plus, if you buy five sandwiches, you get a sixth one free (you can keep multiplying, too; 12 for the price of 10 and so on).
The sandwich is so beloved it has its own Facebook fan page. Or rather the restaurant has its own fan page, with a sizeable subset devoted to No. 82. This is a typical comment: "One time Tony left a sandwich from the deli in my car (in the middle of summer) while we explored downtown for a few hours. The smell was both unreal and persistent. I want a sandwich right now."
When I asked Lilly Nguyen, who co-owns Pho Vietnam with her husband, Eric Nguyen, why she thinks the vegetarian sandwiches are so popular, she said she was surprised to hear that they were. Maybe she's unassuming, or maybe fans of No. 82 are a quiet segment of the restaurant's legion of fans.
The menu boasts more than a hundred items, including pho, crispy and soft noodle dishes, broken rice and pricier, more adventurous Vietnamese dinners, such as braised spicy quail or fish fondue. The Nguyens' pho is excellent (and cheap, too, at just $4.95), full-bodied and savory with accents of cinnamon and anise and not too overwhelming for one person, unlike the mammoth bowls usually seen and often left more than half full at other restaurants. Fresh spring rolls with Thai basil and a spicy peanut dipping sauce are a sure bet as is the Thai-iced tea, a not-too-sweet concoction of strong black tea, star anise and sweetened condensed milk.
The Nguyens, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, opened a grocery store on Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith in 1986. Ten years later, they converted the store into a restaurant. Everything is handmade, which can take a while, but there are plenty of small pleasures to soak in while you wait for your order: lighthouses and seagulls hanging on the walls; the binder of Vietnamese wedding album stationary at the counter; the aquarium with no water in it; the magical tea cups, filled with complimentary tea, that glide across the table, and the anticipation that comes with not knowing which of the two complimentary desserts will come at the end of each meal.
Now, here's the real question: When are you driving to Fort Smith for lunch?
Pho Vietnam, located at 2214 Rogers Ave., is open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday. The phone number is 479-782-3227.