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Pho Quest: Asia and 88

Another dispatch from the endless quest. SmSh's resident pho-ologist Hien weighs in on a couple of newish Vietnamese options around town....
2011-08-11 14:40:36

Pho Quest is quasi-occasional column that follows one man's never-ending search for a decent bowl of Vietnamese beef and noodle soup.

With the exception of a few expansions and closures around town, it has been largely quiet on the pho front. In fact, since Pho Season last November. I've only only found two that are remotely worth mentioning: Pho 88 and Pho Asia.

When Pho 88 first opened, they waged an SMS blitzkrieg. For a solid week or two my phone buzzed incessantly, beckoning me to come try their pho. It was a war of attrition that I eventually lost. I finally broke down and hit it up on a Saturday. Now, where I'm from in Vietnam, your average pho joint would be packed to the rafters for lunch. 88 was empty, which immediately lead me to question its quality. Seeing the menu was somewhat reassuring. It's almost solely devoted to the noodle soup. Focus is good.

It's also the first menu in town I've ever seen with pho dac biet, A.K.A. "special pho." This is a bowl of noodles with brisket, sirloin, beef balls, tendon, and tripe. You know, all the good stuff. Price also scored a few points in 88's favor -- generally 38rmb or less. But it seems 88 built me up only to bring me down. The broth proved overly salty and missing more than a few key spices. It was more like miso soup than anything that would pass as pho. The broth is the crucial component of this dish. When it's done wrong, the damage is irreparable. No amount of bean sprouts, basil, or lemon can correct it. It still astounds me how few pho joints around town get this.

Pho Asia, however, has restored my faith in Shanghai Pho. This pan Southeast Asian eatery has been sharing space with a high end Hong Kong Hotpot place on Fumin Lu for about six months now. In that time, I've found myself frequently returning. To me, this place is among the the few decent places around town for this soup. The broth is rich and beefy. They've got a great selection of different pho styles, the price is pretty good too (38rmb). Their butchering practices are bit unorthodox by Vietnamese standards. We like our sirloin cut thicker and we never cube our brisket. I'm willing to let such a technicality slide if it means getting a pho fix. Other than that, my main grievance is this: there's just not enough of it. They cram all of this stuff into such a tiny bowl! This basically means means they're cheating you out of that wonderful broth. But, given the scant options around town, I suppose I'll have to settle....