I took my hyper-critical Asian mom to Pho Xe Lua during her recent visit and was pretty pleased with the establishment. PXL touts itself as an "authentic asian cuisine" restaurant, but in my opinion their forte is their Vietnamese dishes. The restaurant is squirreled away next to a Budget Inn and not much to look at from the outside but is quite surprisingly expansive inside. Upon walking in, you'll think you've mistakenly wandered into some sort of enchanted Asian Wonderland. The foyer is done up with a river rock encrusted wall where a serene waterfall cascades, then to your left you'll encounter a large gilded ox with a little jockey perched on its back. Not sure what its significance is, but I found it to be charming and a bit humorous. Despite my determination to "act grownup," I couldn't quell the desire to reach out and pet the shiny ox. So I did and got both a dirty look and a sharp whack from moms. Ouch!
During our visit, I found the staff to be quite attentive and friendly. Many of the waitresses were greeting arriving customers by name and seemed to know their standing orders. Pretty impressive in my book, for a place that's only been open for about a month. One of the two waitresses we had was quite patient and spent about ten minutes discussing ingredients with my mom. Also, when asked about smoking (my mom lives in a state that has yet to go smoke-free), the waitress helpfully advised that there was a little shaded nook outside with an ashtray stand where my mom could indulge in her nasty cancersticks.
As for our lunch, I opted for the bun tom nuong (charbroiled shrimp over vermicelli noodles). It was prepared perfectly both in taste and in aesthetics. The serving was quite huge and despite being ravenous, I only ended up finishing about half of it. My mom opted for the pho tai (a beef noodle soup with slices of rare steak that you toss in) along with some goi cuon tom (shrimp summer rolls). I think her eyes were bigger than her stomach, because she barely put a dent in her soup despite happily slurping away for a half hour and she ended up taking the summer rolls home. The pho at PXL comes with the obligatory bean sprouts, cilantro, hot peppers and lemon. Also, the necessary condiments are placed on each table, so you don't have to flag anyone down to get some sriracha. I appreciated this small touch as I don't like anyone or anything to come between me and my sriracha.
After dabbling in the sampling of Vietnamese food for the last several months (thanks to a Yelper friend who turned me on to it), I can understand now why Anthony Bourdain, when asked which food he enjoyed the most out of all the countries he visited during his Cooks Tour, replied, "almost everything I ate in Vietnam." The ingredients are fresh, there's a nice balance of contrasting flavors, and a minimal use of oil ... making the dishes quite healthy. PXL does a great job of sticking to this and hopefully it won't be a flash in the pan, as I hope to continue to patronize the joint. Especially since it's open 7 days a week from 8am-10pm... perfect for a bowl of pho for breakfast on a hungover Sunday morning or a late summer dinner when the sun goes down. Also, the prices are reasonable ( $5-$7 for most dishes). But most importantly, it passed the mom test.