A bowl of Xe Lua pho at Pho 88, flanked by giant fresh basil leaves, sprouts, and the usual arsenal of flavorings (chiles pastes, hoisin, etc.) to be added in.
The make or break of any full-service Vietnamese restaurant is its pho. While this beef noodle soup originated as street food in French Indochina, here it’s the centerpiece of any Vietnamese restaurant’s menu, the thing you’re bound to try before advancing to the rest of the bill of fare. If the pho sucks, chances are dim that the rest of the menu will succeed.
As my colleague Lauren Shockey has pointed out, there are plenty of different types of pho broth in different parts of Vietnam, and the one served in Saigon, for example, is lighter than the broths deployed in the northern part of the country.
One thing most pho fanciers agree on, though, is that a good bowl of it is rare in New York City. A debate rages over the reason for this. Some say it’s because most of our Vietnamese immigrants come from the city of Hue, where pho is not as prevalent. Others claim it’s because many of our Vietnamese restaurants are not run by Vietnamese.
I’m fond of the pho at Pho Grand, but I’d never put it above any of the phos I’ve eaten in San Francisco or the Silicon Valley, where the pho turned out at innumerable small shops is often spectacular.
Many of the broths here have an excess of spices like cinnamon and star anise, are too sweet, and lack depth. Such was not the case with Pho 88’s version. Of the many variations available, I ordered the one with the most stuff in it, Xe Lua ($6.50), the name of which looks suspiciously like the French word “Deluxe,” but apparently means “train.” All the usual cow-based accoutrements were present: brisket, navel, frank, omosa, tendon, and eye of round. The round predominated, with nice brisket, but lesser quantities of tripe and tendon.
But, oh! The broth. It was notably unsweet, and strongly beefy, with a silky quality to the taste and texture, and spices used with surpassing subtlety. And the price is about a dollar less than you usually pay for such a big bowl. Highly recommended.
51 Bayard Street
The wealth of rice stick noodles dredged from the depths of the soup