Jhe hot pot of goat caught my eye. In fact, there was a whole page of the menu devoted to goat cheese: la marmite, goat curry, stir-fried five-spice goat cheese, goat salad, grilled goat meat. “Are you still walking around Chinatown, looking at menus?” asked my colleague Mari Taketa when I told her that I had spotted a pot of goat in Pho Que Huong. Um yes ? Particularly when he says goat. And when the 113-course menu also includes whole roast catfish and whole fried fish and many other uncommon items (like beef testicles).
Even though there are all the usual suspects – pho, banh mi, bun – I’ve come to think of Pho Que Huong as the place for special occasion Vietnamese food. For when you want to gather a group of friends and dive into dishes made for sharing, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in Hawai’i. Last week, on Pho Que Huong’s fourth anniversary, large groups all around us passed noodles on the table and crossed paths to dip meats in a pho pot and bundle herbs in sheets of rice paper .
Meanwhile, two of us tackled an almost comical catfish, cut open and fresh from the oven with browned, cracked skin as crispy as the skin of a pork roast. It was tempting to just peel off all the skin and eat it like chicharrones, but I saved a few pieces to wrap in rice paper and all the trimmings – a platter overflowing with fresh herbs, daikon and carrot marinated, and even fine points of pineapple. The meat below, on the other hand, was a little disappointing – although flaky and rich, it lacked seasoning, although this was easily remedied with a dip in the hot anchovy sauce provided. Fish must be ordered at least an hour in advance, and it’s offered at market price – when we went, the platter, big enough for four, was $70.
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Then there’s the dish I came for: the goat cheese stew ($58). Amid the sea of hot pot restaurants in Honolulu, there isn’t one quite like this. A Chinese herbal broth is flavored with goji berries; codonopsis, a ginseng-like root; and dried longan. It arrives packed with tender pieces of braised goat on the bone (some even with the skin attached), as well as lotus root and taro, and topped with sheets of fried tofu skin, softening in the soup. You have to eat in order to make room in the pot for the accompanying greens – chrysanthemum and cabbage with mustard – and egg noodles. The broth is quite tasty on its own, but we’re mesmerized by the silky sauce made from fermented bean curd, the kind used as a condiment for congee or sautéed with leafy greens. It’s creamy and salty, just slightly sweet and reminiscent of cheese. We charge extra when we pack our leftovers (there are a lot – the pot would easily feed four).
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Later visits reveal that the more common dishes of Pho Que Huong lack the excitement of fish and pot. Although the bun bo hue ($15), or spicy beef noodle soup, is different from others in town, with beef shank, ham, pork feet and pork blood, the broth tastes surprisingly thin and flat. Grated banana blossom and ong choy help cool it down. Meanwhile, the lotus root salad becomes sweet and the fried quail salty. But with 113 articles, not everything can be a success. My advice: Stick to wraps and hot pots, and finish with dessert. The che ba mau ($6) is my favorite, like a Vietnamese halo halo, with three types of beans (kidney bean, mung bean, and black-eyed pea) topped with pandan jelly, coconut milk, and crushed ice. Even going to the checkout after eating is always an adventure, the counter stocked with freshly made desserts to refresh and, on a recent weekend, packets of sweet and savory puffed rice mixed with rousong (dried pulled pork). For the adventurous and the curious, there is a lot to discover in Pho Que Huong.
1160 Maunakea St., (808) 528-3663