CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Drivers sometimes do a double take when they turn onto D Street behind the mound in South Charleston and come across not one, but two, Vietnamese restaurants.
Pho Vinh Long and Yen's Sandwiches stand across the street from each other, where they are somewhat unexpected presences in a county where inhabitants tend to favor biscuits and burgers.
"People are surprised when they come here. They don't know what this food is," said Pho Vinh Long owner Tung Luu. "After they try it, they like it and come back again."
City rules dictate that the two restaurants feature menus that are not identical. Yen's emphasizes sandwiches and Pho Vinh Long specializes in Vietnamese soups, or "pho."
Pho means noodle soup in Vietnamese. It's usually made of thinly sliced beef, chicken or shrimp and rice vermicelli simmered in a fragrant broth
Yen's specializes in sandwiches called banh mi, which is Vietnamese for the bread or baguette that holds the sandwiches. The baguette became popular in Vietnam when the country was a French colony. The French influence also shows in the mayonnaise served on the sandwiches.
At Yen's, the baguettes and buns are baked in house.
Banh mi are filled with seasoned pork, beef, chicken, meatballs or Vietnamese ham and topped with fresh cucumber slices, cilantro, julienned carrots and radishes and mayonnaise.
The six sandwiches, priced at $3.50, are joined by eight other items on the menu, including a hearty beef stew, curry chicken and shredded pork entrees that are $8 and egg rolls, spring rolls and fried rice cakes.
Doug Damron works in Kanawha City, but said he travels to South Charleston for lunch when he's in the mood for something different. He eats at both Pho Vinh Long and Yen's.
"I like ethnic foods. I try to eat healthy and the soups and sandwiches are all fresh. There's no grease," Damron said recently as he sat down to a steaming bowl of Co'm Cari Ga, or curry chicken served with rice at Yen's. Sweet potatoes, lemon grass, onion, and sugar snap peas joined the mix.
At Pho, Luu recently added 23 items to his pho menu, including Vietnamese stir-fried, roasted and shredded beef chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetable entrees priced between $9 and $11.
But it's the pho that holds center stage. The heart and soul of the pho is the broth. Luu begins simmering his broth at 5 a.m. and continues for 18 hours to produce a soup delicately flavored with fresh ginger, onion and a hint of cinnamon.