If there’s a food heaven in Buffalo, I might have just discovered it at Pho Lantern Restaurant. Michael Nguyen and his wife Chuyen have transformed the former Niagara Seafood into a food-lover’s delight, featuring a fresh new look and a fantastic new menu. The Nguyen family also owns Á Châu International Market across Rhode Island at 833 Niagara Street.
To start, I still can’t believe what they did with this former seafood market – I first interviewed Michael seven years ago when the place first opened. I am in awe of the recent transformations, including the new patio that is currently being built. The place is decked out with brightly lit salt water fish tanks, beautiful lighting, and an overall welcoming and sophisticated modern décor – a far cry from the days of the market.
I sat down for lunch yesterday, to try out a few of the menu items. Upon opening the menu, I was immediately struck with how many items I wanted to sample. I was surprised to see bubble tea (boba) on the menu, so I figured that I would start with that. To date, I have never had a decent bubble tea in Buffalo, so I held my breath. When it arrived, the papaya flavored drink was served up in a tall weizen glass with the standard oversized straw.
It took one sip for me to be hooked – they nailed it. The home brewed tea was cold, sweet and delicious, appropriately blended. The tapioca pearls at the bottom fit the diameter of the straw to a T. They were not hard, and not overly squishy… they were yummy and gummy, which is apparently hard to pull off because I have experienced a lot of fails over the years. Happily, I was off to an auspicious start.
Next up, I ordered an avocado banh mi sandwich. I’ve been on an avocado kick recently so I figured that I had to try that version. Banh mi sandwiches might sound easy to make, but they are not. To get it right, a lot of things have to come together. In this case, they all came together just right. The julienned pickled daikon veggies, with homemade butter, fresh cilantro and a heap of avocado was, altogether, super scrumptious. Honestly, it was better than my previous favorite banh mi experience up in Toronto. The tasty sandwich was light and airy. A couple of raw jalapeño slices presented a nice little kick, which was balanced off by the butter. The Vietnamese style baguette melted in my mouth. Although ample size, it was not like a typical American sandwich, so there was thankfully still room for more.
Feeling lucky, I ordered the flight of four veggie egg rolls… for $5! Due to the price, I was sure that they would come out looking like miniature versions of the real thing. But I was wrong. They were full size and perfectly cooked, with plenty of ingredients that balanced out the thickness of the egg roll wrapper. Something so simple – not over fried, with lots of veggies, and priced to sell.
I must also mention that all of the food was served on little boat plates that had extra reservoirs for dipping sauces. Very cute, and very professional. The service was efficient and quick. Everything was served hot – nothing sat around getting mushy or warm. I almost didn’t have time to stare at the fish tanks due to the expedient service.
In the end, I felt that I had room for one more menu item (everything was so good), so I ordered the house specialty – The Phoritto (Buffalo’s first phở + burrito)… although maybe it should be spelled Phorrito, incorporating the double Rs of “burrito”? Anyways, the Phoritto is a deconstructed bowl of beef phở, wrapped in a burrito shell, served with a free side of traditional phở beef noodle broth. Once again, I was amazed at how nice the presentation was, and how delicious the food was – what a brilliant idea! The flavors were spot on, the beef was cooked to perfection, and the flavors were divine. The accompanying dipping sauce enhanced everything nicely.
Incredibly, all of the food described above came to exactly $20. To me, that’s the best deal in Buffalo. Just think of the four egg rolls. At any given Asian restaurant in town, that alone would come to $8, and they wouldn’t be as good. A bubble tea is usually at least $5 – this one was $3.50. And then the banh mi sandwich was $4. Throw in the free soup that came with the Phoritto, the atmosphere, and the service, and there’s not much more that one could ask for. Except for a return trip, which is something that I am already planning.
By the way, depending on the day, there are loads of specially priced menu items. Each day of the week features a half priced item, and there are happy hour specials, including six veggie egg rolls for $5 between 3pm and 5:30pm (weekdays – dine-in). As if that wasn’t enough, there’s beer, wine and sake. Pho Lantern also cooks up Vietnamese flavored chicken wings. Customers can order smoothies, desserts, Burmese milk tea, a wide range of soups, salads and appetizers, seafood, rice, and noodle dishes, and there’s an entire page of the menu dedicated to vegetarians.
Kids will love it too, because of the fish tanks – there’s no other place in Buffalo that has such a salt water system, at least that I am aware of.
One thing is for sure – any restaurant owner that pays this much attention to the food and the rest of the details deserves to have a steady clientele. I have no doubt that Pho Lantern is destined to be one of the top foodie hot spots in years to come.