Who’s Got the Best Pho?
Three Silver City restaurants are offering $5 bowls of Pho. We gave them a taste test.
If you want a delicious, hearty, quick meal for $5.00, here’s a hot tip for a cold February day. A smart marketing strategy called Phobrory, initiated by Bamboo Restaurant, Thai Bar-B-Que, and Vientiane Noodle Shop, brought me to National and 35th to check out their $5.00 Pho available during the entire the month of February.
This is a Vietnamese dish, a deep bowl of beef or chicken broth filled with rice noodles, fresh herbs, scallions, and thin slices of beef or chicken.
It’s not to be confused with ramen, though many equate the two, perhaps because both are essentially noodle soup served in bowls. Pho uses stock made from beef or chicken bones and rice noodles, while ramen has pork- based broth and wheat-flour noodles. These may sound like a small distinctions, but with different noodles and different proteins you get flavors unique to each broth, which gives ramen and pho their special character.
Likewise, in each of the three restaurants featuring pho, you will encounter three different personalities in the décor. At Thai Bar-B-Que, the word is glitz. Customers are greeted by a pair of statues of standing goddesses, art on the walls, and a big map of southeastern Asia.
Their Steak and Meatball Pho had plenty of noodles and scallions, but the beef broth lacked the robust flavor typically associated with pho. It came with the traditional add-ons: bean sprouts, sliced jalapeno, lime quarters, and sprigs of fresh mint. The steak, thin slices about an inch long, some tender, some chewy, were not the best part of the pho. Our server said the meatball, which had been divided into small pieces was pork, not beef, and it’s not made in house, but like most restaurants, purchased from various suppliers. It’s tradition to add Sriracha and Hoisin to the broth, and that’s what I did to tweak the flavor.
Next door at Bamboo Restaurant, we sat next to the kitchen with just a screen separating us from the stove. That’s how we knew our food didn’t linger, but came directly from kitchen to table. This no frills Laotian/Thai restaurant is small, cozy, and the only one that gave us fortune cookies when we finished our meal. It was also our least favorite pho. On the plus side, the Vegetarian Pho had a delicious assortment of broccoli, carrots, onions, and scallions. However, the broth had little flavor to enhance the veggies and the noodles. Again, with the help of a few squirts of Sriracha a lot of Hoisin sauce, and fresh lime juice from the add-ons, plus bean sprouts and mint, I easily emptied the bowl.
If you want a bowl of pho with complex flavors, cross National to the north side of the street to check out Vientiane Noodle Shop. Their inconspicuous signage — red neon letters in the window, easy to miss on a drive-by — doesn’t appear to keep people from finding this small gem. There are a dozen tables in two rooms and eight seats at the counter, that’s all. Every seat was occupied at noon on a Monday but the wait was brief as most customers ate quickly and left.
The condiments on the table, the usual Hoisin, Sriracha, red pepper, fish sauce and soy, also included Instant Beef Flavor, an addition which suggested the Steak and Meatball Pho might need help. Not so. It turned out to be the best pho of the three I sampled. The rich, complex, beefy broth alone was worth the $5.00 tab. Then add rice noodles, scallions, many slices of tender steak, a couple chunks of meatballs, and you have a big hot bowl of deliciousness to savor.
At each of the three Phoboary restaurants, my companions ordered several of the other Thai and Laotian entrees and without exception, enjoyed every bite. As for the pho, the Vietnaine Noodle Shop broth had the best flavor; the Bamboo Restaurant broth was bland but that could be attributed to my choice of vegetarian; the Thai Bar-B-Que broth was vastly improved with the addition of Hoisin and Sriracha.
When we couldn’t make up our minds about which pho to order at Bamboo Restaurant, our server said, “It’s just noodle soup.” She could be on to something. When you start to dissect the qualities of pho, you see that it’s just a gussied-up bowl of broth with a lot of rice noodles and a few scallions floating in it. After it’s tweaked with Hoisin, Shiracha, and whatever else is on the table, you end up with something far more complex than an ordinary noodle soup. It’s also a fine hot lunch to warm the heart on a cold winter day. And a good excuse to check out this interesting Asian area in town.
3417 W. National Ave.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mon, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wed-Sun
Bamboo Restaurant (Laotian-Thai)
3427 W. National Ave.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon-Tue, 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thu, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fri, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sat-Sun
Vientiane Noodle Shop (Laotian/Thai)
3422 W. National Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon-Sun