The word “basilic” is French for basil, but it also has a meaning of “kingly” or “royal” in certain contexts. Basilic, a Vietnamese restaurant across from the Phoenix Art Museum, seems to incorporate both senses of the word. Of course, there’s plenty of basil since that herb is often used in the cooking of southeast Asia. The restaurant also has a somewhat more upscale feel compared to most Vietnamese restaurants around town, perhaps leading to a slightly regal vibe. The combination of both meanings results in Vietnamese food adapted for the museum district.
Basilic occupies a standalone building just a block east of the McDowell/Central light rail station. Bike racks are just around the corner in front of Bunky Boutique. The spot has previously housed Mexican and Thai restaurants, as well as an old school diner. Basilic is the first tenant to have made a significant investment in redecoration with updated flooring. lighting, and furniture. The new look is largely white-and-gray, which seems to be the predominant color scheme among the new apartment buildings that surround Basilic and dwarf its smaller structure.
Basilic’s attention to decor, its full liquor license, and its slightly higher-than-typical prices might suggest that its food is gentrified Vietnamese, but that classification flirts with the questionable premise that if a particular national cuisine has historically been presented in humble surroundings at low prices that it should always be served that way. That belief seems to be rooted in issues of power and prestige more than authenticity or actual food costs, and places like Basilic can offer a gentle rebuttal to the idea that “ethnic” food has to be cheap.
Although the owners are of Vietnamese origin, there is some Americanization to address the predominantly non-Vietnamese clientele. There is minimal offal on the menu, for example. Nevertheless, fresh herbs and fish sauce are in abundance, producing some assertive flavors — not so much in the soup broths, which are relatively tame, but more in some of the entrees, noodle dishes, and stews on the menu. The two-column menu covers all the categories usually seen on Vietnamese menus in the United States, with the entire backside devoted to beverages.
All meals begin with a complimentary basket of shrimp chips, although the staff always ask about shellfish allergies first. They’re fine on their own but particularly good when paired with some of the lemongrass paste or garlic chili sauce found on each table. Appetizers include both fried “imperial rolls” and cold “fresh rolls.” Both come with a customary filling of shrimp and pork, as well as options of chicken, grilled beef, or salmon. Rocket shrimp involves tail-on whole crustaceans paired with a sprig of scallion and encased in a wonton wrapper before frying.
The prevailing expectation at Vietnamese restaurants is to see pho on the menu. Basilic offers beef and chicken options, with the added possibility of having each grilled with a lemongrass seasoning before being placed in the broth. Since Basilic’s broth is somewhat light in flavor, that option is recommended. Oxtail, meatballs, and seafood are other pho choices; however, Basilic is not the place to find tripe or tendon, two variety meats often found in soup bowls at Vietnamese restaurants. Most of the pho options are offered in small and regular sizes.
A few other soups are offered, including regional dishes such as bun bo hue, a spicy, meaty bowl from central Vietnam, and an egg noodle soup with pork wontons and mixed seafood. These are serviceable but are not made with broths clearly differentiated from the pho base used elsewhere on the menu. Stews, thicker and darker than the soups, offer a clearer contrast with the pho. The chicken curry is made with poultry, sweet potato, and onions simmered in coconut milk. The beef stew contains tender meat in a dark sauce with carrots and onions.
Among the plated entrees, the shaking beef matches cubes of seasoned filet mignon with grilled peppers, onions, potatoes, and a side of fried rice. The meat has some char and peppery taste on the outside with a rare interior. The wok-tossed noodles combine assorted vegetables with beef, chicken, or seafood and the customer’s choice of crisp rice, soft rice, or egg noodles. The spicy lemongrass noodles incorporate additional levels of flavor above the standard brown gravy with the inclusion of not only the named herb, but also fresh basil and peanuts.
Among the lighter entrees, there are several meal-sized salads. The spicy rare beef lime salad is an effective mix of tart, salty, and sweet flavors. The papaya salad is topped with ample grilled shrimp but could use more dimension in terms of fresh mint and some chili heat. There is only one option on the menu for dessert: fried banana with vanilla or green tea ice cream. If those limited choices are not of interest, a selection of pastry can be found just around the corner at Giant Coffee, and gelato is scooped and served across the street at In Perfetto.
Basilic is the rare Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix will a full liquor license rather than a limited selection of bottled beer. There’s a selection of wine by the glass and a set of tap handles with draft choices including local favorite Juicy Jack from SanTan Brewing. Several original cocktails are offered with discounted happy hour prices. If the decor hasn’t already made Basilic seem a bit more upscale than most strip mall pho joints, the beverage selection closes the deal. Tenants have come and gone at this location, but the latest is a welcome upgrade at this address.
101 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix AZ 85004