Wednesday, January 16, 2019     Volume: 19, Issue: 45

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Pho-nomenal: Santa Maria welcomes a new Vietnamese restaurant


Having lived in cities like San Francisco and Houston, one of the big empty places in my culinary heart is the sore lack of solid Vietnamese restaurants on the Central Coast. My hankering for dishes like pho and banh mi often goes unfulfilled, leading me into a foodie sadness spiral.

If you’re going to order the pho at Tommy’s Pho Seafood and Grill, remember that it’s pronounced “fuh.” The beefy broth made with baked meat bones and a variety of fresh herbs and seasonings is a popular street food in Vietnam that has found its way into the hearts of American diners.

But thanks to the opening of Tommy’s Pho Seafood and Grill in Santa Maria, it looks like my luck is changing. While it’s still just in the soft-opening stage, Tommy’s is proving to show a lot of potential. The restaurant quietly opened in late 2017 in the former space in Santa Maria Town Center West once occupied by Marie Callender’s. The sprawling venue has ample seating, which I’m sure the owners hope will one day be packed with hungry diners seeking authentic Vietnamese food.

The menu at Tommy’s is ambitious; along with traditional Vietnamese fare, the venue plans to offer an extensive line of seafood dishes including Louisiana-style crab, shrimp, and crawfish. If the idea of Vietnamese Cajun crawfish boils makes you cock your head in confusion, you might be surprised to learn the fusion cuisine has been a hit in places like Louisiana and East Texas for years. When I lived in Houston (as a starving writer trying to eek out a living freelancing), there was no shortage of Vietnamese restaurants serving up all-you-can eat crawfish boils. I consumed my body weight in crawfish one summer, mostly because it was cheap and absolutely heavenly.

Take a trip down Bellaire Boulevard in Houston and you’ll find more than a dozen of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the country, serving up to-die-for banh mi and pho (seriously, if you ever visit Texas, put this on your must-do list). Tommy’s has the feel of one of those bayou-adjacent joints, a smart diverse menu focused on familiar favorites of American diners with a strong nod to tradition.

Spring rolls are a popular addition to any Vietnamese restaurant menu, and Tommy’s Pho Seafood and Grill offers a version that’s a clean and bright bite of food.

It was a cold and wet day when I first ventured into Tommy’s, so I naturally hit up their pho first. (By the way, it’s pronounced “fuh,” not “foe,” despite what you may have heard.) For those new to the cuisine, pho is a fragrant broth with bánh pho rice noodles and sliced beef (although you’ll find versions with chicken on most menus). But it’s that aromatic sweet and savory broth that makes pho the standout dish that’s become rabidly popular all over the world. Seasoning mixes vary from chef to chef, but the broth typically includes charred onions, ginger, star anise, coriander, black cardamom, fennel, and cloves (and I’m probably excluding some others).

The broth with meat is then served alongside a dish of fresh garnishes for you add at your discretion, including Thai basil, lime, cilantro, green onions, and bean sprouts. Sauces such as hoisin, fish sauce, and sriracha can be added according to your own preference, too.

Tommy’s Special Pho includes filet mignon, brisket, flank steak, and beef meatballs, which is personally my favorite ingredient. I also like the meat that’s more on the rare side and you can pick and choose from their menu which combination of beef is up your alley. I thought the broth was nicely done with more than enough noodles (another favorite part).

Banh mi sandwiches take a touch of French cuisine and meld it with traditional Vietnamese fare. The key to a good banh mi lies in the freshness of the bread, typically a small French baguette.

I also indulged in their spring rolls, which are vermicelli noodles, shrimp, cucumbers, and bean sprouts wrapped in rice paper and served with peanut sauce. The sauce was really well balanced and the shrimp inside the rolls was fresh. Spring rolls can be hit or miss, but the ones at Tommy’s were really quite good.

For dinner, my fiance and I swung back to Tommy’s for their banh mi. This is absolutely one of my favorite dishes in the entire world. Bahn mi sandwiches (sometimes called Vietnamese subs or Vietnamese po boys) are a true art form. The sandwich is a Vietnamese-French hybrid featuring a small toasted warm baguette filled with pickled vegetables such as daikon and carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, sliced jalapenos, and a variety of meats. The sandwich is also flavored with homemade Vietnamese mayonnaise (and some venues will even include a layer of special paté).

My favorite kind of banh mi is the barbecue pork, and Tommy’s really did not disappoint. The key to good banh mi is a bite that delivers crispy, freshly baked bread and a burst of fresh vegetables against the flavor of the meat. It’s a perfect bite when executed correctly and one of the best parts is that the sandwiches are usually pretty cheap. Tommy’s banh mi are all $4.99 and include a choice of barbecue pork, chicken, or fish, as well as a combination with Vietnamese ham and pork.

Other dishes on the menu include bo luc luc, another French-Vietnamese fusion dish made with sauteed beef cubes, red onions, cucumbers, and peppers (another of my favorites) and a selection of noodle bowls and familiar fried rice dishes.

Try it now
Tommy’s Pho Seafood and Grill is now open at 229 Town Center West, No. A17, Santa Maria.

While 2018 has certainly begun with a lot of weirdness (and rain, ugh) the arrival of Tommy’s has put a huge bright spot on my horizon.

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose will never learn how to spell sriracha without having to look it up. Contact her at



Plenty on Bell is serving up plenty on their chicken parmesan melt, an ooey-gooey, crispy fried sandwich (pictured) available now at the Los Alamos eatery. Plenty on Bell is located at 508 Bell St.

Chicken parmesan melt from Plenty on Bell in Los Alamos

• It’s Restaurant Week, my favorite time of the year. In Santa Maria, Century Room at the Historic Santa Maria Inn, Cielito Lindo Mexican Grill, cNagy Wine Tasting Room, Core Wine Tasting Room, Far Western Taver, Grevino Café and Wine Bar, J Maya Restaurant, Moxie Café, Straw Hat Pizza, and Vintners Bar & Grill at the Radisson Hotel are all offering specials for $20.18. Visit for more info.

• Fans of Global Gardens in Los Olivos, rejoice! Theo Stephan just penned a brand new cookbook, Opa! The Healthy Greek Cookbook: Modern Mediterranean Recipes for Living the Good Life. You can order your very own copy on Amazon or stop by and pick one up at Global Gardens at 2450 Alamo Pintado Road, Los Olivos.

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