Though it’s been open for “21 months and counting,” or so our waiter (also one-half of the husband-wife duo that owns the place) informed us, it wasn’t until several well-informed foodie friends told us it was definitely worth the drive that we dared the endless traffic snarl on U.S. 36 to have lunch at this Hendricks County international gem. Pho 36 (9655 E. U.S. Hwy 36, 317-273-1830) may seem unassuming from the outside, tucked into its strip-mall home next to a foot massage spa. But it packs plenty of fresh flavors into its Vietnamese staples: soups, sandwiches, noodle dishes, and bubble teas. The savory aroma of a bunch of spring rolls frying up hit us as soon as we opened the door.
After recharging with the jolt of a French press iced coffee and a bracingly refreshing lemonade with thin slices of lime, we navigated the menu of over 60 offerings. Big fresh rice-paper spring rolls were a must, with thinly sliced pork, shrimp, and a subtle crunch of veggies with a hoisin-peanut sauce we spiced up with a bit of Siracha at the table. A crunchy cabbage salad with shreds of tender chicken and a vinegary sauce spiked with chili flakes also made for a cooling starter—and would have made a perfect lunch by itself on a hot summer day.
Our foodie friends had raved about the bread on the bahn mi, though we found the sub roll that held our “special” with sliced pork roll and pate just a bit to the squishy side, though plenty of crisp, well-dressed shreds of carrot, daikon, and cucumber made up for what the bread lacked in texture. A big bowl of vermicelli and sliced eggrolls with yet more sliced pork that the owner recommended proved to be a solid version of the Vietnamese classic—also embellished with plenty of cruciferous garnishes. We resisted the owner’s assurance that the corn pudding was especially good and, lamenting the fact that we didn’t have a place like this closer to downtown, we planned our next trip to get the catfish cooked in a claypot or even the stir-fried squid.