Serious soups to investigate
by Lee Lawrence
It's hard to take seriously a new restaurant that opens--and continues to operate a couple of months later--still sporting its predecessor's signs. Inside, too, the new Pho House on Washtenaw reveals a hodgepodge of the building's previous incarnations--Tios, Fattoush Grill, Fat Philly's--overlaid with a quick skim coat of southeast Asian decor. But friends reported promising Vietnamese cuisine beneath the camouflage, so my mother, brother, and I went to investigate.
Opened by a local Laotian family, the Inhmathongs, who owned the now closed Banh Na further west on Washtenaw, Pho House specializes in Vietnamese soups, noodle salads, and sandwiches. These are not the light, frilly dishes of the ladies-who-lunch crowd, but substantial, filling meals that satisfy basic cravings. Pho, a hearty beef broth soup loaded with rice noodles, is the big draw, and the restaurant has several renditions, along with a chicken option. We settled on the house specialty, pho dac biet, laden with thin strips of flank steak cooked in the hot broth, brisket, tripe, quartered meatballs, and incredibly succulent bits of tendon. Dumping in garnishes--jalapeno slices, bean sprouts, Thai basil, cilantro--and squirts of lime juice, we slurped up noodles and broth, fragrant with star anise, from a bowl so enormous we had leftovers for the next day's lunch--and that was the small option!
The "house special" bun, or vermicelli noodle salad, was equally generous. Thin sheets of marinated grilled pork, shrimp, fried fish cakes, spring rolls, pickled vegetables, herbs, and chopped peanuts hid piles of cold noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, and cucumbers. On the side came a bowl of nuoc cham, the traditional condiment of fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sugar that enlivens everything. A trio of hot, hotter, and hottest chili sauces on the table let us determine our own spice levels.
The "small" banh mi, or Vietnamese sub, was also hefty, but the paltry filling of grilled pork and pickled vegetables, though tasty, got lost in the oversized, squishy-soft bun. A stir-fried
dish of egg noodles, assorted meats, seafood, and tender-crisp Chinese broccoli also left us rather uninspired, but those with plainer tastes would have sighed happily. Next time, we're looking forward to trying one of the hu tieu (pork and noodle) soups and the canh chua, a sweet-and-sour soup with rice. A slew of stir-fried entrees served over rice round out the menu.
I'm hoping that Pho House outlasts both the Fat Philly's signs and their departed predecessors. I have some serious soups to investigate.
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.- 9p.m.
Appetizers $2-$8.95, sandwiches $4.95-$7.95, soups $5-$13, noodle salads $8-$11, noodle and rice entrees $8-$13
[Originally published in May, 2013.]