Want a break from same old Isla Visa flavor? Dive into a bowl of pho at one of these lesser-known local Vietnamese eateries. Pho, a staple in traditional Vietnamese households, is composed of thin rice noodles bathed in broth and topped with slices of meat or vegetables. This week, On the Menu takes a tour of Santa Barbara’s Vietnamese cuisine, pho your eating pleasure.

Pho Sho’

Pho Bistro
903 Embarcadero del Norte, Isla Vista
(805) 685-3610
Price: $5 to $10

Wedged between I.V. Drip and Isla Vista Surf Shop lies Pho Bistro, a new addition to the local cultural cuisine. Pho Tai, a favorite dish among regulars, features thinly sliced beef cooked rare atop a rice noodle soup. The restaurant and the menu are smaller than other places in Goleta, but is so popular that the store often caters to packed tables during its lunch and dinner hours.

Pho Bistro partial owner and manager Jeff Lieu said that a smaller restaurant fosters a sense of familiarity between the regulars and the staff.

“The fact that we’re a smaller place allows us to be more personal,” Lieu said. “For a lot of customers, we’ve got their tastes memorized.”

The décor is minimalist and colorless, but draws the eye directly to the food. According to Lieu, Pho Bistro offers a traditional Vietnamese taste that breaks the mold of typical I.V. flavors.

“The basis of the restaurant is pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup – something you’d eat in a Vietnamese household once a week,” Lieu said. “The [customers] that come here want something different. In I.V., there are lots of choices but a lot of the same choices. We’re kind of alternative.”

While there are plenty of options for pizza and burritos in Isla Vista, Lieu said that the absence of Vietnamese culinary competition in much of the Central Coast made establishing Pho Bistro a viable business decision.

“We opened business in I.V. because the Central Coast has less competition in this particular food,” Lieu said. “To base a restaurant around soup seems like an odd concept, but there are thousands of restaurants like this in Orange County and the Bay Area.”

With its unique menu, convenient location, and friendly staff, this restaurant is an attractive choice for lunch or dinner in Isla Vista.

Check out the tantalizing taste of Pho Bistro Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Miss Saigon

Saigon Noodle House
6831 Hollister Ave., Goleta
(805) 968-5116
Price: $5-$10

Across the parking lot from K-Mart in Goleta stands the Saigon Noodle House, an ideal stop for pho and other authentic Vietnamese cuisine. The restaurant blends old and new, with a flat screen television for entertainment on the wall alongside traditional Vietnamese paintings and artwork.

Owner David Pham said that the eatery’s selection and practices attract local residents and students, especially those concerned about eating fatty foods.

“We get mostly local customers, and we have a lot of students come in as well,” Pham said. “We try to cut down all the fat, all the grease – we make the food as healthy we can.”

The restaurant serves a variety of dishes, from Tofu Salad, which is served with a sweet and sour sauce, and Crispy Fried Shrimp for an appetizer, to rice dishes served with meat or veggies, and several combination meals. For a dish with a fruity kick, try the Com Chien Thom Thap Cam, which is a bowl of pineapple fried rice and a choice of either shrimp and chicken or pork.

Saigon’s prices are perfect for all appetites and budgets, with some of its entrees available in regular and large sizes, and most dishes under $8.

The restaurant is the largest local Vietnamese venue in the Santa Barbara area, and according to Pham, often seats parties of several dozen students at once.

“Most students, they love it,” David Pham said. “Some come in at least three times a week. It’s a good place for a group – 30 or 40 come at the same time.”

Pham said that while Saigon has many regular customers, the restaurant hopes to attract more newcomers with a fresh menu inspired by Vietnam’s different regions.

“In the future, for the next couple months, we’ll be trying to attract customers with a new menu,” Pham said. “Like mi quang, a traditional Vietnamese noodle dish. We’re trying to provide the food from different areas of Vietnam.”

Saigon Noodle House serves up pho from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and on Sunday until 7 p.m.

Oodles of Noodles

Noodle City
5869 Hollister Ave., Goleta
(805) 683-6818
Price: $5 – $10

Further down Hollister Avenue lies Noodle City, a traditionally oriented taste of the orient. Noodle City is a small restaurant featuring Vietnamese favorites like pho, noodle soup and broken rice dishes. With traditional Vietnamese artwork set against red accents, the eatery has a style to match its menu. Bill Pham, owner of Noodle City, said the restaurant’s crispy noodle dishes are very popular.

“We deep fry the noodles so it looks like a net,” Pham said. “Then we add meat and stir fry with vegetables. It’s very good.”

Pham said the store’s proximity to UCSB brought daily student customers. He also said that student word-of-mouth was a boon for business.

“A lot of students, they come in a lot,” Pham said. “Their family will come try the food. They bring a lot of people.”

Pham’s 25-year-long career has included restaurant work in both Isla Vista and other stores in Goleta. Pham said that he has gotten to know many of the students and has designed his menu to accommodate their appetites and their wallets.

“I know all the students,” Pham said. “We have a good price for the students and good food for them.”

With hours from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday – Sunday, and reasonable prices, Noodle City puts a traditional Vietnamese spin on the typical Goleta pit stop.

That’s What It’s All About

Saigon In and Out
318 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara
(805) 966-0916
Price: $5-$15

Out in Santa Barbara, another venue for Vietnamese exists, nestled in between shops. Saigon In and Out, unlike the popular burger stop, has no drive-through, but the décor itself is worth the trip. There are leafy green plants positioned between tables, creating a unique natural feel and providing a private dining experience. As the restaurant is considerably further from campus than other dining choices, owner William Lam said that he would see students occasionally, but catered mostly to local businesses.

“We get mostly local customers, but we have lots of students come in as well,” Lam said.

Lam said that he and his cooks had made every effort to create an appealing and healthy menu for a more diet-conscious Santa Barbara.

“It’s very healthy,” Lam said. “Less oil, lots of vegetables. Good for students and the local market.”

Prior reviews in the Independent and Food & Home magazine have acclaimed the restaurant’s spring and egg rolls. Lam said he was proud of both appetizers and that they were popular among other menu items.

“We have a lot to choose from,” Lam said. “Spring rolls and egg rolls, they are very popular appetizers.”

Aside from healthy appetizers, the restaurant also offers house specials, like the Tau Hu Ki, a shrimp cake, and other entrees, like the Ca Chung Tuong, which is a steamed fish dish served with soybeans and ginger. The eatery offers an entire section devoted to vegetarian meals, like Mi Xao Don Chay – Crispy Noodles with tofu, baby bok choy and snow peas.

Take a drive down the 101 to Saigon In and Out, open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Whether you’re in the mood for an Isla Vista treat or a Santa Barbara excursion, these utopias of flavors are sure to transport you to new and exotic destinations.