Breaking News From Pho Sure!
Chef Michael "Bao" Huynh does not let the opportunity for a pun pass him by. He dubbed his new chain of banh mi joints "Baoguette," a play on "baguette," and one of the most popular sandwiches there is the sloppy bao. Now, in a move that brings his fondness for bad jokes to an unprecedented level, he's opened a noodle spot and named it Pho Sure. Even the menu wisecracks, offering noodle soups called pho sure, pho real, and, best of all, mo pho—a bowl replete with beef tendon, tongue, and peen, better known as good old bull penis.
Huynh has done his share of bouncing from project to project since 2001, but no matter where he's cooking, he has a rare and sometimes startling deftness with the vibrant flavors of his native Vietnam. At Bar Bao, which opened last year on the Upper West Side, Huynh reminded me how well suited Vietnamese food is to upscale iterations, and also how insanely delicious fried daikon cake with duck confit and a poached egg can be. He seems hell-bent on blanketing the city with banh mi shops, but, apparently, building a sandwich empire doesn't keep him busy enough. Hence Pho Sure, a full-fledged, vaguely hip restaurant jammed into the back of the West Village branch of Baoguette. Reportedly, Huynh's next venture is a Vietnamese beer garden on the Lower East Side, which will be opening soon. He makes David Chang look like a slacker.
Pho Sure is a slim room that seats about 30, with an open kitchen at one end. It only serves dinner, offering a large array of salads, rolls, and appetizers, along with main-course b'uns (cold noodle bowls) and phos. But the most compelling dishes come from the large selection of offal; each item is introduced by an eccentric description on the menu and is served bobbing in a small bowl of broth. Tripe's entry reads: "Crunch, crunch, chew, chew, exercise your jaw today." And blood pudding's blurb sounds like ad copy: "Silky smooth, once you start, you can't stop." (Like Pringles, only bloody.)
All those puns and nutty menu prose make Pho Sure seem a little off-kilter—but the oddities are endearing instead of gimmicky, because most of the food is excellent. As is so often the case when eating out, the appetizers are the most memorable dishes, while the main dishes play it (relatively) safe.
One of Huynh's strengths is his ability to deploy fatty cuts of meat and fried ingredients, then balance them out with pickles, citrus, and crisp vegetables, like the Hue summer rolls (named after the city in central Vietnam), which harbor pickled shrimp and pork belly. The jicama summer rolls rely on the salty bite of dried shrimp and the spiced funk of Chinese sausage to play off the watery crunch of the vegetable. A tangle of pickled red onions lends a needed edge to a single, fat soft-shell crab, battered and deep-fried. Best of all, the Berkshire pork belly (each time I think I'm sick of it, I'm not), fatty and crisp-edged, is tempered by seriously delicious curried, pickled Asian pears. The unapologetic exception to the balance rule is tasty enough to pull it off: fried, gooey chunks of rice cake with Chinese sausage and a poached duck egg on top—not unlike the daikon cake dish at Bar Bao.
The b'un noodle bowls are far simpler, and take few risks: Extremely straightforward, they lack Huynh's characteristic exuberance. (I wished those pickled shrimp from the summer roll had found their way into the grilled hanger steak b'un.) The cool rice noodles are served with fish, pork chop/shrimp, or grilled steak, along with the usual lettuce, herbs, cucumbers, and sprouts. All of the b'un bowls could have used more fish-sauce dressing and a greater quantity of herbs.
As for the pho, it wins more than half the battle with its properly beefy, aromatic broth. Squeeze on the lime and add some herbs and sprouts, and the noodle soups are pleasing enough, even without the meaty toppings. The best of the three options is the restaurant's eponym, pho sure, a bowl of soup filled with pink slices of rare beef, long-cooked brisket, and beef shin. Mo pho nets you pho with tendon, peen, and tongue.
The only really challenging meat in that bunch is the peen. Tongue is just like roast beef, mineral and beefy, and tendon is chewy and mild, but the peen looks disconcertingly like the human kind, sliced into rounds and floating in soup. I mentioned this similarity as I poked at the stuff interestedly, while my two male companions looked increasingly ill. But the penis isn't offensive—it doesn't taste like much; its real purpose is to add a soft, chewy texture to the soup or make you feel like an adventurous mo pho, or both.
The ideal way to eat at Pho Sure with a group is to order a bunch of the appetizers and rolls, then share a bowl or two of pho among you, augmenting that with small bowls of offal. The nasty bits are served in small bowls of broth, a more concentrated, sweeter, and beefier version than that in the pho. Among the offal, choose the yellow orbs of "hen caviar," which pop like maraschino cherries under your teeth, yielding an interior that tastes like dense yolks.
Isn't hen caviar . . . an egg? At the risk of sounding right-wingy, these are actually unborn eggs—taken from mama's belly in a late-term chickbortion. Other good options include the tripe, particularly mild, cut into wispy, swaying strands, and the bone marrow, which is anything but mild—a bowl of broth, with a golden oil slick on top, and gobs and gobs of bone marrow bobbing within. One bite coats your mouth with bovine fat. It's so good that it's almost obscene, but it gives you a creeping suspicion that you've just sold a year of your life to the gods of saturated fat.
Refreshingly, there's no wink-winking irony in Pho Sure's jokiness. It's simple—the puns are bad, the food is good, the peen is in the mo pho, and all's right with the world.
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