Pho 79: Get Your Phix Here (Grade: B+)

Pho 79 is a solid Vietnamese bistro serving steaming and deliciously fragrant bowls of their namesake soup. The Peninsula is sadly bereft of Vietnamese restaurants, save one other – Bamboo One – making Pho 79 a welcome newcomer as well as a nice foil to the tragedy known as Moe’s Southwest Grill that shares its parking lot.

Pho is easily one my most favorite things in the world to eat. It’s the penultimate comfort food, as far as I’m concerned – I crave it when it’s cold out, I crave it when I’m sick, I crave it when it might possibly get a little overcast sometime in the coming month. I could literally eat it every day. The first time I had the stuff was in San Antonio when a friend who married a Vietnamese woman steered me toward it. It was a poor representation of the dish, and I pretty much forgot about pho until a Vietnamese chain joint called Pho Cong Ly opened up in Austin about a half mile from my apartment. I gave it a shot on night when I didn’t feel like cooking, and …

Oh, my. That’s good.

That’s really, really good.

I went back the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. I didn’t care that there was nothing on the walls or that the floor was covered in cheap linoleum or that I was sitting at long cafeteria tables under blinding fluorescent lights while I sucked down gallons of soup brought by a waitstaff that communicated primarily with grunts and annoyed shrugs. This stuff is clearly crack cocaine in a bowl, and I became a bona fide addict. There is simply no other way to explain it. I know I have a problem, but I just don’t want to quit. And I’m not the only one – there are entire blogs devoted to this singular dish (to wit: www.lovingpho.com, www.phofever.com, www.justphoyou.com), and when Guy Fieri went to a diner that served pho, he inhaled the entire bowl (usually he only takes a bite or two of whatever is being served). This is seriously powerful stuff.

If you aren’t among the worshippers at the pho altar, I’m guessing you just haven’t ever tried it, so let me elaborate on the genius of pho. First off, it’s pronounced “fuh,” not “foe.” I don’t care how many of your white friends call it “foe” – it’s “fuh.” Hence Pho 79’s racy slogan: “It’s pho king good.” It’s also soup, which is pretty foreign to western palates as a main course (north of Mexico, anyway).

Pho tai nam, goi cuon and cafe sua da.

At its roots, pho is a rich beef stock infused with various aromatics (usually cinnamon, star anise, cloves and ginger) in which a ball of thin square rice noodles and slices of your meat of choice are submerged. The soup is topped with sliced onions, scallion rings and chopped cilantro. Like a Honda Civic in the hands of a 16-year old, pho is imminently customizable. Any self-respecting Vietnamese joint will give you a plate of accoutrements: mung bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, lime wedges, Thai basil and culantro (a long saw-edged green) to add (or not) to the soup. Squeeze bottles of hoisin and Sriracha chili sauce are always at the ready to further tune the experience (some folks dump the sauces straight into the broth, while some choose to put them in small bowls and dunk their meat in them). The meat selection alone is enough to send the decision-impaired into a full-scale meltdown – you’ve got everything from familiar brisket (nam) and eye round steak (tai) to more exotic tripe and tendon in every possible combination. A Vietnamese “delicacy” that is probably more “acquired taste” for most westerners is the meat ball (bo vien). Far from spaghetti adornment, this orb is a spongy, vascular affair with a texture that reminds me of early McDonald’s chicken McNuggets, only much chewier. I tend to favor the eye round steak, which arrives in a pile of “under done” paper-thin slices sitting on top of the noodles. The idea is that you push the beef into the hot broth to cook it to the particular diner’s desired done-ness. If you are somehow cool enough, or speak enough Vietnamese, you can get the meat brought out raw on a separate plate. I am not yet strong enough with the force to know how to do this.

Pho 79’s pho hits all the right notes. I mean, you can smell the star anise 50 yards away from the restaurant. Their broth is on the richer side, which is fine by me. It’s got a deep beef flavor beautifully layered with all the aromatics and is a bit darker than the typical recipe. The accompaniments are always fresh (even if they are a little stingy with the basil), and Pho 79 gives you a healthy serving of meat. In the end, you’ve got a beefy and exotically flavored salty broth shimmering with small circles of fat, slices of beef, chewy noodles and crunchy bean sprouts all shot through with lively herbal and citrus flavors and as much of a spice kick as you want to throw at it. Pho is the perfect marriage of all the flavors and textures that trigger an “I’ve come home” feeling of warmth and contentment.

What kills me is you get all this for under seven bucks (eight if you order the gigantic large bowl). See, I’m such a junkie that I made my own pho. Once. It took two days due to having to cook down my own stock from the oxtails. And I guarantee you I didn’t have all the garnishes. But when you’re making it in large quantities, it’s really a pretty inexpensive and easy to assemble dish. You just put the noodles and meat in a bowl, pour the stock over, add the onions and cilantro and voila! What that means to you and me is that we can have this beautifully intricate dish for about what you’d pay for a crappy personal pan pizza that’s been sitting under a heat lamp all day and some bread sticks with a plastic cup of weird fake butter to dip them in. Whipping it up at home requires far, far more effort and ingredients than the seven bones you’ll shell out at Pho 79.

And yours won’t taste nearly as good.

Pho 79’s restaurant is actually … well … tastefully decorated. They have a coherent design theme, and it looks like they thought about the ambiance before they built it. This is unusual for a pho joint, mind you. Most are strictly utilitarian, with white walls and a distinct hospital-cafeteria feel to them. Service is typically brusque, all-business and seemingly unhappy to see you. It is, after all, a culinary methodone clinic. There just isn’t much point in decorating the place when all the patrons are going to be face-down in their bowls, obliviously sucking up noodles like the second coming is just around the corner.

Pho 79, on the other hand, features warm colors, a waterfall, an assortment of small tables and booths, and fairly nice (even if a little detached) staff. On one recent visit, I was actually asked twice if my food was OK, which is two times more than I was ever asked in the restaurants in Falls Church and Arlington. They couldn’t resist the typical Asian move of peppering the place with flat screen TVs, but I guess you can’t ask for the moon. Of course, on another visit, a gaggle of customers stood confused at the front door, wondering if they should wait to be seated or just elbow into a table somewhere while the staff dissolved into the background. You have to go pay at the counter (they sometimes forget to tell you that), and as some Urbanspoon visitors have noted, the payment process usually involves the staff dividing their time between texting/surfing/talking to co-workers and settling your bill. For the most part, the staff is competent, helpful and engaged, and when service goes downhill, it’s usually because they’re swamped as opposed to just being tuned out – but some days it’s a little difficult to tell.  To their credit, on my last visit, I watched a waiter not only patiently discuss all the different items on the menu with some newbies, but he offered to divide a large bowl of pho into two smaller bowls so both diners could try it, walked them through the process of using the garnishes when their food arrived, and even offered to bring them a different fiery addition if the jalapeno peppers and Sriracha wasn’t enough for them.  Now, that’s some seriously good customer service.

If you read my review of Thai Papaya, you know I assess the authenticity of Asian restaurants based upon how screwed up their English is. I am sad to report that Pho 79’s menu is in perfect English. Even the ubiquitous “shrimps” is absent. Fortunately, the web site gives a hint of the restaurant’s legitimacy with its convoluted story about the secret ingredient to the pho and a promise to deliver meat that “suits your needs.” The site features two different home pages, a graphic of what appears to be Mount Fuji, a woman eating a salad Pho 79 doesn’t sell, a kid eating plain white rice out of a bowl, and another rice-filled bowl with distinctly non-Vietnamese writing on it. The site further tells you pho will clear your sinuses and “fulfill your wildest culinary imagination.” So, the site’s weirdness makes up for the menu’s perfect English. Seems legit enough to me.

Beyond pho, Pho 79 has a small selection of other dishes, including seven different varieties of the brilliantly simple banh mi sandwiches. At $3.75, these sandwiches are the bargain of the universe. You eat one of these and you’ll scratch Subway and its ilk right out of your lunch repertoire. I promise. What you get is a ten-inch-long crusty baguette stuffed with your choice of meat plus pickled carrots and daikon, green onions, tons of cilantro and a whiff of mayo. It sounds far too simple, but the ingredients and textures marry up beautifully and almost as addictively as the pho. I recently had the grilled pork, which came out moist, yet with a pronounced char-grilled flavor to it. What struck me was the sandwich took longer to make than soups – which tells me they grilled the pork to order for this humble sub. These things really are genius on bread and are worth a trip to Pho 79 in and of themselves.

The menu also includes the standard (yet awesome) rice (com) and vermicelli (bun) dishes topped with your choice of char-grilled pork, chicken, beef or shrimp. I don’t know if they’re throwing the meat on a charcoal-fired Weber out back or what, but the char-grilled flavor they manage to sear into the meat is just unbelievable. These dishes are served with a bowl of nuoc cham (“nuke-chahm”) on the side – it’s fish sauce infused with garlic, red pepper and carrots. I’m ashamed to say that in my early experiments with Vietnamese cuisine, I pushed the nuoc cham to the far side of the table and doused my dish in soy sauce. But, no more. There’s a reason why Alford and Duguid call this stuff “must-have table sauce” in their awesome cookbook, Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Take my word for it: just pour the entire bowl over your dish. It’s simply brilliant, no matter how weird the idea of “fish sauce” sounds. After all, I suspect sloppy joes and scrapple sound pretty nasty to other cultures. (Note that if you try and warm up leftover food with nuoc cham on it, it will smell like death – it will still taste great, but your neighbors and co-workers will hate you.)

Pho 79 also features a few hu tieu (pronounced “hoo tee-you”) pork-based soups, a southern Vietnamese dish that you rarely find on the standard pho restaurant menu. The broth in these is richer than you’d expect and almost tastes like it was infused with a chicken stock (it also sports the unmistakable flavor of MSG). You can get it with either clear tapioca noodles or super-thin egg noodles that are pleasantly firm. Either way, it comes with whatever combination of shrimp, sliced pork loin, shrimp, squid and fish-based meat balls that catches your fancy. It’s topped with fried shallots and is served with the same garnishes as the pho. The hu tieu is another straight-up comfort food offering, but it has more of a rustic sensibility and less of an exotic flair than the pho. It’s also extraordinarily tasty and satisfying. I have to ding them for haphazardly deveining the shrimp on my last visit – if you’re going to go through the trouble, you shouldn’t leave a quarter of the vein dangling from each shrimp’s tail, because it just highlights the fact you’re eating the, well, you get the point.

Pho 79 oh so slightly stumbles with their goi cuon (aka “spring rolls”). These are the super-healthy rice-paper rolls stuffed with pho noodles, a couple cooked shrimp, a reed of traditionally bland pressed pork, lettuce and herbs, all served with a sauce that’s a mixture of peanuts, hoisin and tamarind (called nuoc leo). Pho 79 dispenses with the carrot and substitutes a thick cucumber stick. They also omit the mint and basil, relying solely on a few measly cilantro leaves. I’ll give them that the cucumber adds a nice crunch, but I just can’t overlook the absent bright tang you usually get from the mint/basil. Without it, the rolls are unnecessarily dense and heavy.

The bottom line is Pho 79 is the Vietnamese version of an American diner. It’s warming, comforting, all-business and missing nothing more than the “honeys” and “sweeties” that you didn’t want to hear from the 19-year-old male waiter in the first place. There’s some stuff on the menu that’s a little scary, but it’s OK. Order that grilled pork bahn mi, because it will take you home. Trust me, you’ll understand. One junkie to another, you know?

P.S. In case you’re wondering, the “79” in the restaurant’s name marks the year 1979, when the owner came to the U.S. from Vietnam.

Grade: B+
Address: 12551 Jefferson Avenue #213, Newport News (there are two other locations: 1445 Sam’s Drive #101 in Chesapeake and 4816 Virginia Beach Blvd. in Virginia Beach)
Phone: (757) 877-1213
Website: www.pho79-va.com/
Note: they’ve got an application for a liquor license in the works …

I think the Urbanspoon diners are in agreement with me here:
Pho 79 on Urbanspoon

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