Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pho - Sho!

Being the good little food blogger that I am, plus several years of catholic school obedience drilled into me, I did as I was told by Philly mag and ventured over to 6th & Washington to check out Pho Ha - ranked as best pho in the city. Just back from Thailand, and a new found lover of all things from southeast Asia, the smell when you walk into the place brings back the fresh ingredients and sultry smells of Bangkok street vendors. There's a lot of cross-over between with Thai & Vietnamese food, with lemon grass, rice noodles, limes & cilantro all playing major parts in the cuisine.

Pho, if you've never had it, is the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. It comes in a ridiculously large bowl, and is served with a huge range of condiments and extras (think Fixins bar at Roy Rogers)  that you can add in for flavor or heat to your liking. The base is always rice noodles, but you can get any mix of sliced beef, tripe or pork as a protein. Add in fresh lime juice, siracha, hoisin or soy sauce, thai basil leaves, and bean sprouts to your heart's content. The key to good pho of course, is the broth. Basically a mellow beef broth, but with hints of exotic Asian spices like ginger, cloves, star anise, and fish sauce. At it's best it is both subtle and complex, warming your belly and your soul. It should taste like a little old Vietnamese grandmother has been slowly boiling and stirring it for a day or so.
the fixins
Our experience at Pho Ha, during a torrential downpour outside, was nothing short of magical. There seems to constantly be a small crowd of people waiting at the door, mostly Asian (which is a good sign) but plenty of others seeking out their pho fix. They don't seem to follow the hostess/server/food runner/bus boy approach, but rather employ a team strategy where everyone working in the front of the house can and does do every job. We lost track of who our server was at least twice. The menu is small and concise, offering just a few appetizers - we got the spring rolls and summer rolls - along with a small collection of noodle and rice dishes. But everyone is here for the pho. You can order a small or large bowl, with your choice of meat (or veggie if you swing that way) and it will be delivered nearly instantly to your table, along with hot tea and all the required fixins.
summer roll - with a whole shrimp inside

spring roll with chili dipping sauce
The table turns here would make other restaurant owners jealous. From the time you order to the time your food is delivered has to be under 3 mins. They don't even mess with place settings - your chopsticks, spoons, and napkins are all stacked ready to go at the end of the table. There's a steady din of happy eaters slurping and sipping their pho, but with tile floors and glass walls reverberating everything the noise level would be a bit much for a first date. Once the pho comes out though, you won't be doing much talking. Trying in vain to cool the hot noodles and broth to get it in as quickly as possible, you are instantly consumed with the process of using chopsticks to grab those slippery little rice noodles that have now soaked up that amazing broth. Slices of beef float on top, just barely pink in the middle, on their way to cooking thru in the hot liquid. A shot of hoisin, some soy sauce, basil leaves and some house made chili sauce put this dish over the top. You'll find it hard to come up for air.
the pho
You can't beat the price at a place like this either. For less than $10 a person, you get a meal worth writing home about (or blogging about) and possibly even some left overs (not in my case). I've had pho only a few places in the city, but it's going to be hard to justify looking further than this - I feel like I've been spoiled. Pho Ha is earned a special little place in my heart with just the one visit. I'm certain we'll be back for more. Now I just need to get one of those little Asian grandmothers to show me how to make that broth.

-T. Kaso

Food Baby rating:  Twins!!

Pho Ha
610 Washington Ave, 
Philadelphia, PA 19147-4836(215) 599-0264 

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