Restaurant Reviews :
(Please Note: Fusia Café has since closed, with a new Malaysian restaurant called Baba Neo opening in the same building. I'll leave the review of Fusia in the archives for historical reference.)
by Robert Rich, December 2002, for MV Voice and PA Weekly
Soup to Warm a Cold Aftenoon
One of my favorite Pho' restaurants just had a facelift and changed their name. With the upgrades, Fusia Cafe hopes to entice a dinner crowd to augment its bustling lunches. I've taken friends here for lunch since 1993, when Pho' Xe Lua opened its doors on the corner of Moffett and Central Ave.
Generous portions, firm noodles, delicate broth and a wide selection of meat and vegetable toppings have made this a destination for fast and satisfying Silicon Valley lunches.
The original owner of Pho Xe Lua, Tuan Vu, recently teamed up with his sister Kim Vu and niece Ellen Le to refinish the interior into a pleasant atrium atmosphere, with burbling fountain, natural slate tile, tablecloths and attentive service.
The menu changed to reflect these improvements. The prices went up about 30% to cover higher costs. (I can't blame them. It's hard to survive charging $5 per meal.) The new menu added a list of entrees that piqued my curiosity, since I love Vietnamese cooking.
Pho' and Beyond
Pho' (pronounced feh) means rice noodles in beef broth topped by thin slices of beef, typically round steak, fatty brisket, tendon, or tripe. Pho' restaurants in America augment their menu with seafood and chicken soups. Thin wheat noodles also prove popular.
Pho' comes with an accompaniment of fresh basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges and hot peppers. Diners adorn their soups with these fresh ingredients, and often add a squirt of hoisin (thick plum sauce) or Sriracha pepper sauce.
Pho' is typically a lunch food, and noodle houses usually keep costs low with simple decor and brusque service. In return, patrons get a quick cheap delicious healthy meal.
But Vietnamese cuisine has much more to offer than noodle soup. Historically Vietnam has acted as culinary crossroads between China, Thailand and France. These influences combined to create a true Asian fusion, with spicy coconut curries,fresh herbs like mint, basil, rau ram and saw leaf, sweet marinated meats and salty fermented fish sauces.
Very few Vietnamese restaurants in Silicon Valley feature the full range and depth of this complex cuisine, perhaps fearing that the new flavors would confuse non-Asian clientele. Personally, I love these flavors, and I felt optimistic about Fusia's new direction.
Bustling at Noon
I returned twice to Fusia Cafe since they reopened, for dinner and lunch. I was happy to discover that lunch service was busier than ever. Fusia has found a lunchtime niche among local techies, and the atmosphere makes lone diners feel as comfortable as large groups. An arc of tiny tables encircles the fountain, set for quick single and duo lunches.
Dinner, on the other hand, still feels quiet. Perhaps the location two blocks from downtown prevents its discovery.
Seafood noodle soup is my wife's favorite here ($6.25), with deeply seasoned broth and lingering flavors of star anise. This soup now generously features prawns and scallops, no longer including diced squid nor imitation crab. The vermicelli wheat noodles feel firm in the mouth.
The five-spice duck noodle soup ($6.50) has become a new personal favorite. The earthy sweet broth needs no adornment. Shiitake mushrooms and bok choy give substance to the noodles. A whole leg and thigh of moist marinated duck sits on top. Challenging to eat with only chopsticks and spoon, it's worth the mess.
Of course, Fusia also offers pho' with rice noodles and choice of beef types, as well as chicken, wonton, vegetable (not vegetarian) and a house special soup with a bit of everything.
I applaud Fusia for maintaining three different soup stocks -- beef, chicken, and seafood -- to pair with the ingredients in each noodle soup. The duck soup even adds fresh duck broth blended with the seafood and chicken stock, lending sweet depth. Such extra detail helps differentiate each dish, adding a level of subtlety rarely found in affordable restaurants.
Fusia's main dishes feel like they're still under construction. Some are very good, others leave a lingering sense of missed opportunity. Perhaps I set my expectations too high after Fusia's excellent Pho'.
The main dishes are reasonably priced, mostly under $10. They arrive plated for individuals rather than family-style, on a large platter that makes the portions look smaller than they really are. With a generous mound of rice and vegetable accompaniment, the meals feel healthy and filling.
The Shaking beef, or Bo Luk Lac ($9.75) comes diced for easy eating with chop sticks. Lightly marinated then sauteed in a sweet onion sauce, the beef cubes sit on a bed of lettuce, thinly sliced tomatoes and onions dressed with sweetened rice vinegar, with a sprinkling of minced fried garlic.
The beef paired nicely wih a glass of BV Cabernet ($5.25), but I wished for a bit more flavor from the marinade, and I thought the beef was slightly overcooked. While the raw greens created a very traditional Vietnamese presentation, I missed the pungeant flavors of fresh herbs that I have found in this dish elsewhere.
The pan-seared sea bass ($11.50) also would have benefitted from a more exhuberant application of native flavorings. Crispy on the outside, firm and a bit dry inside, the fillet had a light sweet sauce of brown sugar and soy, which blended into generous piles of rice and sauteed bean sprouts with strips of carrot and hints of ginger. Again, the large platter dwarfed the fillet, making the presentation look a bit drab.
I loved the chicken curry ($6.75), with spicy flavors reminiscent of Thai red curry, thick coconut milk with potatoes and lean chunks of chicken breast. Complex flavors of turmeric, coriander, cinamon, cloves, garlic, bay leaves and hot peppers combined to make this my favorite of the entrees that I tasted.
I haven't recently tried Fusia's barbecue specialties ($6.75-$8.50), served over noodles or rice; but I enjoyed these dishes before the makeover, and I would recommend them. Vegetarians have two options: vegetable stir-fry over rice or noodles, and vermicelli noodles with fried spring rolls (both $6.50)
Exploring New Flavors
I love the fresh spring rolls at Fusia ($3.50), translucent rice wrappers filled with noodles, shrimp and pork slices, cucumber and sprouts, dipped in a sweet spicey peanut saté sauce.
In the past I remembered a mint leaf inside, adding characteristic freshness. I asked owner Tuan Vu why they omitted the mint. He said some customers had complained about it. What a shame. Sometimes the customer isn't always right.
Vietnamese iced drinks offer many tantalizing flavors, often using preserved fruits or gelatin. Fusia serves a mouth-puckering salted plum soda, lychee iced tea, raspberry lemonade and fresh young coconut juice, among many others ($2-$2.50). The strong smooth French drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk ($2.50) repays every patient minute while watching it drip into the cup.
Desserts include two housemade Vietnamese iced sweets. I tried the Suong Sa Hot Luu ($2.50), strips of sweet agar jelly, crisp fruit flavored tapioca pearls and a wedge of sweetened pressed bean paste in light coconut milk and ice. I loved its delicate, not too sweet, lingering floral perfumes.
Fusia Cafe remains an excellent pho' house, a top choice for fresh filling lunches. Dinners still need a bit of a kick-start. I hope customers will encourage the owners to move further toward traditional Vietnamese preparations, and not feel shy about unfamiliar flavors. I look forward to new discoveries at Fusia Cafe.