The homogeneity of Rockville Town Center makes it difficult for a mom and pop operation to stand out among the routine franchises, but Pho & Rolls does bring small scale charm and hospitality to its little space with graphic photos of Vietnamese ingredients and friendly service. Order at the counter, and food is served at your table.
Pho is that classic sustenance of silken rice noodles immersed in a piping hot broth flavored with star anise, cinnamon and cardamom, all topped with thin cuts of beef ranging from the more adventurous tripe to the more accessible braised brisket, rib eye and tenderloin, and typically served piping hot with bean sprouts, cilantro, fresh lime, scallions, and chilies. It is the soul food of North Vietnam, elegant in its simplicity.
There are eight versions of pho here at Pho & Rolls that feature beef, with an additional chicken pho with your choice of light or dark meat, and there is a vegetarian pho. The generous portion of broth in our Pho Chin Nam (pho with well done brisket) was properly flavored and rich in body from simmering with plenty of bones and meat. The thin slabs of brisket were tender and delicious. Go with the dark meat on the chicken pho; it has far more flavor and character than mere chicken breast meat. The only condiments at the table are Hoisin sauce, a thick bittersweet soy based sauce, and Sriracha, the ubiquitous squeeze bottle of cartoon-red hot sauce; more seasonings such as fish sauce, chili pastes and rice wine vinegars would be welcome.
Typically, a Banh Mi sandwich is a crusty baguette filled with pate, head-cheese, lettuce, jalapenos, mayonnaise, pickled carrots, daikon radish and cilantro, and they are often made ahead of time and stacked by the cash register. However, the Banh Mi made fresh at Pho & Rolls and served on a toasted baguette, is a triumph of a sandwich, with several variations on the menu. The Banh Mi with grilled ground pork is the new gold standard for this sandwich.
Another staple of Vietnamese cuisine is Bo Cuon La Nho, or grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves. At Pho & Rolls, the ground beef mixture is well seasoned and neatly wrapped in grape leaves, grilled at the order, and served with a salad of pickled julienne carrots and daikon radish. Sirloin rolls are an interesting configuration of sliced beef wrapped around pieces of onion and grilled. Spring rolls have a well-flavored filling, are tightly wrapped and well fried so they are crunchy without being greasy. Goi Cuon, also called summer rolls or salad rolls, are also a mainstay of Vietnamese cuisine.
At Pho & Rolls, the routine summer roll wrapped in its translucent rice paper wrapper is elevated to new heights with the addition of various other proteins including grilled minced pork, lemongrass chicken, sesame beef or shrimp. Considering how well all of these rolls are made, they deserve a more flavorful and refreshing nuoc cham style dipping sauce than the one provided.
Rice and rice noodle salads are also a highlight here. Various grilled proteins served over rice or noodles with fresh greens, pickled vegetables, jalapenos and cilantro are dressed in fish sauce and lime juice.
Open since May of this past year, Pho & Rolls offers some highlights in the Banh Mi, the rolls and the pho broth. There are a few details — such as condiments and dipping sauces as well as fresher fruit in the smoothies — that merit as much attention as the proven highlights that would elevate the dining experience at Pho & Rolls from competent to memorable.
There is a lounge-like table by the front door that is fun to gather around, but watch out on a cold day. The front door opens with a whoosh of outside air.