Anyone searching for Vietnamese food, or really any east Asian cuisine, in Mesa is likely to head to Dobson Road, the corridor where countless restaurants have proliferated over the past decade. The Asian Business District at the west end of Mesa is worth exploring and celebrating for sure, but it’s equally important to recognize restaurants serving Vietnamese food in the central and eastern portions of the city. Pho Leo is one of those few places that break the mold with a location where the tracks in the center of Main Street end and east Mesa begins.
More specifically, Pho Leo is five miles away from the Dobson Road restaurant cluster in a location two blocks west of the Gilbert/Main light rail station. The venue is not a bustling Asian-themed plaza but instead a modest strip mall that belies the restaurant’s richly decorated interior. There are no bike racks, and the front door requires a hard jerk to allow entry, but once those obstacles are overcome, a dark dining room with statues, shrines, and even stained glass awaits. Seating has always been widely spaced, even more so now in reaction to the pandemic.
The restaurant’s menu is a compendium of Vietnamese dishes that have become familiar to many diners, as well as some unsurprising Chinese influences. Meals can start with cha gio, Vietnamese-style egg rolls with fillings of pork, chicken, or tofu. Goi cuon, spring rolls served cold, offer the same assortment of protein choices, along with fresh herbs. If the tofu choices are not obvious at first glance, look for meatless items in a separate vegetarian section at the end of the menu, rather than under categories such as appetizers or entrees.
Fried calamari, chicken wings, crab puffs, and fried tofu are all predictably crisp and satisfying, while pan-fried dumplings with a ground chicken filling and a soy and vinegar-tinged dipping sauce on the side have a more yielding texture. Firecracker shrimp, large, tail-on crustaceans in wonton wrappers, and milder coconut shrimp add to the spectrum of seafood choices. The most popular appetizer choices of egg rolls, spring rolls, and coconut shrimp can be combined in a Pho Leo trio, or even a double Pho Leo trio, suitable for larger parties to share at the table.
If the restaurant’s name doesn’t make the fact obvious. Pho Leo leads with Hanoi-style noodle soups, the aspect of Vietnamese cuisine that has found the largest following in the United States. The bowls of noodles, meat, and broth all come in regular or large sizes and begin with the expected assortment of cuts of beef: tripe and tendon, tender brisket, rare steak, chewy meatballs, and rich oxtails. Chicken, shrimp, tofu, and mixed seafood varieties of pho are also available. Beef broth is the default, although chicken or vegetarian broths may be requested
Other types of noodle soups include seafood or combination of meats with rice or egg noodles and bun bo hue, the spicier beef noodle soup of central Vietnam. A beef stew, a French influence found on many Vietnamese menus, can be accompanied by noodles, rice, or baguette. Noodle dishes can also be prepared in stir-fry configurations with soft egg noodles; wide, flat noodles; or a crisp “bird’s nest” of crunchy deep-fried noodles topped with the diner’s choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu, or a seafood combination
Dry noodle dishes known as bun are equally prominent on the menu. These bowls are made with a base of rice vermicelli served with shredded lettuce, sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, sprigs of mints, sliced scallions, and pickled carrots and daikon radishes with fish sauce for pouring over or use as a dip. Typical proteins include grilled or broiled pork, shrimp, and egg rolls. More unique to Pho Leo is a noodle topping of barbecued beef short ribs. If undecided, the Leo’s Specials #1 and #2 each offer a combination of choices in a bountiful assortment.
Apart from the noodles, there are plenty of dishes built on foundations of rice, either steamed or fried. The combination of grilled pork and Asian sausage adds a distinctive element to the usual panoply of fried rice entrees with shrimp, chicken, and beef. Dishes served alongside steamed rice range from cubes of filet mignon to shrimp with lobster sauce, incorporating both French colonial and Chinese influences on Vietnamese cuisine. The lemongrass stir-fry with either rice or noodles is flavorful enough on its own to need little adornment with condiments.
There also bit of Thai crossover in a curry with a coconut milk base and the neighboring nation’s eponymous pad Thai noodle dish. As is typical in most Vietnamese restaurants, bottles of sriracha, garlic chili, and hoisin sauce accentuate the tables, and the sauces are packaged in smaller quantities for take-out orders. The dessert choices, items such as cheesecake and tiramisu, are not traditionally Vietnamese. The fried bananas are a little more so, and drinks like fruit smoothies and fresh lemonade can also extinguish any fire from the spicier dishes.
Although Pho Leo’s actual bar is most often used as a counter for pickup of takeout and delivery orders, there is a liquor license that allows the restaurant to offer a small selection of bottled beers and wine. Five miles east of Mesa’s Asian Business District, Pho Leo doesn’t try to offer a deep exploration of regional specialties unfamiliar to local tastes. Instead, it fills a niche serving the enormous portion of Mesa that lies beyond the city’s downtown, and having that option available as west and central Mesa yield to east Mesa is in itself a worthwhile outcome.
1734 E. Main St. #5, Mesa AZ 85203