When Chad Gardner assumed ownership of Pho 533 in 2015, he purchased it from a Vietnamese refugee. The restaurant takes its name from the number painted on the side of the U.S. Navy ship that saved Ahn ho Rock during the fall of Saigon.

“I see myself as the steward of her story, recipes and vision,” Gardner said.

He later changed the name to 533 Viet Fusion to reflect his own influences. “I took a lot of the classic recipes and put my own twist on them,” Gardner said, “then added my own items as the restaurant has grown.” While the menu is still quintessentially Vietnamese, it also includes wider Asian influences, local California ingredients—and a little French flair.

The latter is a natural extension given the heavy French influence in Vietnamese history and culture. Gardner cites the story of the banh mi as an example: “The French literally took traditional Vietnamese ingredients and threw them into a baguette.”

The cross between traditional and fusion cuisine makes for a vibrant menu. 533 Viet Fusion’s open floorplan bustles with energy, offering a full view of the bar and showpiece spring roll counter. Ambient music plays energetically overhead, amidst the colorful, eclectic, retro-modern décor.

Our most recent trip started with an order of wok’d ginger green beans. They’re the thinner French haricots verts, naturally. I was amazed by the abundant flavor that belied its simplicity. While the dish is seasoned with just a little ginger, tamari and sriracha, it’s the charred, smoky flavor that brings it to life. “It’s called wok hei,” Gardner explained when I quizzed him about it later, referring to the extreme heat that imparts that magic, smoky caramelization.

Given its prominent presence, we could not neglect the spring roll bar. Gardner envisioned the counter and workspace as “a fusion with the Japanese sushi theme.” That’s also reflected in the spring roll’s presentation: “I wanted to make spring rolls with nontraditional ingredients, cut them into bite-size pieces to make them shareable, and serve them on boards,” he said. A spring roll plate literally looks like a sushi plate, complete with dipping sauce and chopsticks.

The BLT roll captures the imagination with braised pork belly, lobster, lettuce, soba noodles and sriracha mayo. We also opted for the mushroom soba roll with roasted mushrooms, soba noodles, avocado, Fresno chiles, jicama, Thai basil and mint, served with a tamari dipping sauce. Each bite delivers a mélange of fresh, clean vegetables, the roast of the mushrooms and the spice of the chili.

Next up was the pad Thai. We ordered the vegetarian version; the fresh, crispness of the vegetables is brought to life by the light, smoky pan char. Served with scallions, egg, sweet peppers and onions, this noodle dish makes for a tasty medley.

“The secret is in the sauce,” Gardner said. “It takes hours to make. We’re peeling fresh tamarind, then building flavor upon flavor upon flavor.” He forgoes the traditional shrimp paste in the base, mindful of vegetarian diets and shellfish allergies, and the result is a showcase of umami and robustness; this is a dish my vegetarian wife absolutely loved.

“The chicken pad Thai is our No. 1 seller,” Gardner said. “I’ve had people tell me it’s the best in town.”

At Gardner’s suggestion, I had to try the osso buco. I wouldn’t normally need much convincing to order this prime meat … but at a Vietnamese restaurant? When it’s listed as “chile braised”? It’s actually a twist on bun bo hue (also on the menu), a dish that typically includes beef bones added to a red pepper and lemongrass broth.

The spring roll bar is one of the dining room’s most prominent features. Credit: Andrew Smith

“We actually drop those whole beautiful pieces of osso buco into the broth,” Gardner said, “then make it into a coconut gravy.” It’s a culinary upgrade that transforms Vietnamese street food into a French bistro plate. The osso buco is succulent, tender and rich, while the sauce has multiple layers of flavor. It’s a little spicy, elevating slightly with each bite—but the tempering coconut and depth of flavor keep you going back for bite after bite.

Although I did not order it on my last visit, I’d be remiss not to mention the pièce de résistance: The Vietnamese crepe is the reason I keep going back to 533. The name might lead you to believe this is another cross-cultural hybrid, but it is French only in its translated name. It is, in fact, a dish that originated in the remote villages of Vietnam before finding its way to the streets and restaurants of Saigon. The Vietnamese call the crepe banh xeo, or “sizzling cake,” a reference to the sound the batter makes upon hitting the pan. It looks like an omelet, but it’s an eggless mix of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric. “Many restaurants use a packaged mix,” Gardner said. “We make ours daily. It’s fresh and adds a little more sponginess to the crisp texture.”

The crepe is folded and stuffed with pork, tiger shrimp, bean sprouts, carrots and scallions. The sautéed shrimp and pork have that fantastic wok-seared, smoky flavor, but this is a dish that exponentially exceeds the sum of its individual parts.

“Traditionally, you’d break it up into small pieces, wrap it in the leaf lettuce, and dip it in the nuoc cham,” Gardner said. “A few of our customers do that, but most just eat it with a knife and fork, myself included.” Personally, I have no qualms about getting my hands messy. It’s all part of the fun—and the authenticity.

With its array of both traditional and unique dishes, a delightful medley of flavor profiles, and original presentations, 533’s food is equal parts fun and flavor. The layout of the restaurant and the presentation of the plates encourage socialization. Such is the creativity—you’ll find a plate full of conversation. It’s also entertaining to food-watch and people-watch around the room. Not only is a meal at 533 Viet Fusion a veritable exploration of flavor; it’s also an immersive experience that transcends what’s on the plate.

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith been writing about craft beer for more than 20 years—and turned to food-writing after working for many years in the restaurant industry. His passion for good food correlates to his limited...