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Understanding cuisine and its origins can be a complicated enterprise. Some of our favorite dishes are creations that have either been heavily influenced by or exist solely because of colonialism. Though its history isn't completely understood, it's likely pho didn't escape the influence of French soldiers and their love of beef stew cooked over the feu, (pronounced with almost the same inflection as pho).
Whatever its origins, Americans can't seem to get enough of the stuff. The dish has grown in popularity over the past couple of decades; now you can even find it in Jacksonville. Chopsticks Pho's sign from the highway beckoned on a recent trip up U.S. Highway 67/167, and we decided to pull in.
The restaurant is housed in what immediately strikes us as a former catfish place. You know what we're talking about: the faint smell of grease, low ceilings, faded carpet. We almost expected to see hush puppies on the menu. It's cozy, and big windows provide lots of light.
There are plenty of appetizers to get you started at Chopsticks. We tried a couple. The chicken wings ($5.85) are a recent addition to the menu, and a good one, although they came out too hot to eat (so be careful lest your night be ruined by a roof-of-the-mouth scorching). They're good wings — decent sized and seasoned — and came out with a nice grilled finish that left little flecks of burned bits that added a lot of flavor. We were less impressed with the pork and shrimp fried egg rolls ($2.85), but we think that might have had more to do with the side of fish sauce (of which we're not huge fans) than the egg rolls themselves.
At Chopsticks, dinner was definitely the ticket. We were well pleased with the vermicelli bowl with charbroiled sliced pork and shrimp ($9.85), or B5 as it's listed on the menu. The dish was served in a huge bowl, with a handful of seasoned grilled shrimp and grilled pork on top of a huge portion of rice noodles. We're been big fans of Vietnamese grilled pork. There's something about the sweet and salty pork, grilled and still juicy, that is really hard to beat, and Chopsticks gets it right. The vermicelli was topped with cucumber slices, pickled and julienned daikon radish and carrots, and peanuts, placed on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce (which we could have done without). Next time, we'll probably stick with the pork, as the shrimp were good but nothing exceptional.
The pork bánh mì (a grilled sandwich), made on a baguette with a light layer of mayonnaise, included pickled daikon radish and carrots, cilantro, and sliced cucumber and jalapeno with the charbroiled pork. This is usually a go-to for us, and Chopsticks delivered. It's listed as an appetizer and at $4.85, it begs to be ordered and shared.
The star of the show, though, was the pho. We ordered the eye of round steak pho, or pho tai. Great broth is what makes great pho. Beef bones and spices — usually cinnamon, cloves and star anise — are simmered together. The "secret" ingredients that give pho its complex flavor are the charred onions and ginger. The broth at Chopsticks made our tastebuds spin — it was sweet, salty, tangy and meaty. It's difficult to compare the flavor of pho to anything else. But we can say that it's satisfying in every way, even in the dead of summer. There's a richness to it that makes us long for colder weather. This would be such a great wintery dish, or the perfect broth to sooth a cold.
And did we mention it looks fantastic? Hidden in the bowl is a generous serving of rice noodles and sliced beef (cooked medium). A side plate is piled with fresh basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, green onions, lime slices and green chili, which we added in with haste.
There are a couple of solid pho offerings in Little Rock and Chopsticks won't give you anything you can't get at, say, Pho Thanh My off Shackleford. But if you find yourself in the northern part of the metro area, give it a shot. It satisfies. And pho-lovers know there's nothing else that will quite hit that spot once you've got a craving.
1400 John Harden Drive
You owe it to yourself to try a bánh mì sandwich. They're inexpensive and easy enough to pull apart and share. Otherwise, stick with the pho here. We were pleased with everything we ordered, but nothing topped the pho.
11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.