Big Portions: Pho 102

After spending almost all of winter break cramming for the MCATs, it is finally over. No more MCAT, no more drowning myself under stacks of Princeton Review review books and notecards. What better way to celebrate of course, than to enjoy a bowl of high quality pho with your friends on a sunny Saturday afternoon?

By suggestion of one of my esteemed apostles, we decided to check out a place not too far away from us in Chantilly called Pho 102. Surprisingly, it was located in a shopping center I quite often visited, but I had never noticed the restaurant. I must have been one of few because when we entered, we found the place packed. We did manage to grab a seat in the back of the restaurant near the wall though, and there, we awaited service.

Interior. A little cleaner in this picture that it usually is, but not too far off. Photo courtesy of Pho 102.

Interior. A little cleaner in this picture that it usually is, but not too far off. Photo courtesy of Pho 102.

In typical Vietnamese restaurant fashion, a waiter ran to us almost immediately. We told him we needed a little bit of time to sort through the menu. In reality however, there wasn’t really too much to go through. It was the typical fare, pho containing a variety of meats and a few other traditional dishes (while all of us only ordered pho, I have heard the Bun Ho Hue, another type of noodle soup, is excellent). We did see something at the bottom of the menu that immediately had all of us excited: The Pho 102 Challenge. Promising a mega-sized portion of pho, it was apparently a test not for the small-stomached and promised conquerors of the challenge a small reward should the finish the entire bowl. Most of us had dinner plans or weren’t particularly hungry, so we opted for only the large bowls. One brave soul among us, however, stepped up. The waiter reminded us that the challenge was to be completed by one person only. He nodded sheepishly.

The large bowls came out relatively quickly, probably within around 10 minutes. The “102” took a little longer to arrive. When it did, the waiter carrying it out sang a brief happy birthday to my friend, as if somehow his initiation of the “102” would cause a rebirth. After taking a look at it, I was thinking the opposite. Our large bowls were already appreciably sized, among the very largest of bowls of pho I’ve had. The “102” made our portions seem trivial. Nearly three times the size of ours, you could dunk your entire head into the bowl and then some (not that we actually tried, I promise). It was truly, truly massive.

Just how big is the "102"?

Just how big is the “102”?

After we got over the situation at hand, we went on with our ritual and started digging in. While the amount of bean sprouts was a tad bit less than what we were used to, most everything else regarding the garnishes and condiments were up to their usual standards. There was, however, a deep-red colored Satay sauce on the side that looked quite inviting, so after adding hoisin and Sriracha to my broth I added about a spoonful to my soup. I was used to Satay giving the broth a sort of smoky flavor, with a little bit of a spicy kick, but this one shot me out of this world. For someone like me who is not very tolerant of spice, it was H-O-T.  Add that to the Jalapenos and it made for a wild ride that had me chugging down cups upon cups of ice water.

The broth by itself was decent. It had all of the characteristics of a good broth, the aroma given off by the herbs used in preparation, as well as slight meatiness that resulted from the beef bones used in flavoring the soup. However, it fell a bit short in each of those aspects as well, not being up to the standards of the very best pho. Nevertheless, you cannot really expect the best everywhere you go, and it was still quite good all around. The broth here also quite a bit less oily than others’, so if you’re looking for healthier pho (is that an oxymoron?), pho 102 is an attractive option.

The quantity of noodles in the large bowls was good and the meat, while a bit short in quantity when compared to somewhere like pho 75, was quite acceptable and its overall quality was up to par. In my opinion, the $9.25 price tag (If I remember correctly, it may have been a few cents cheaper) for a large bowl was justified. However, the $14.00 price tag for the “102” was most definitely justified. When we had finished our large bowls, our brave friend was still there struggling. He hadn’t touched the soup yet, and was probably only halfway finished with the solid portion of his pho.  After cheering him on (while also laughing at his facial expressions) for about 20 minutes or so, he managed to fight his way through most of it, finishing all of the meat and noodles. In the end he estimated that he managed to force down over a pound of wet noodles and that he most certainly would not be eating dinner that night. When the waiter came over to pick up out stuff, he noted that my friend was not able to complete the challenge as he was not able to finish the broth (which occupied over half the space remaining of the bowl). Had he been able to finish, he would have gotten to take a picture with the owner of the restaurant alongside his enormous bowl of pho (the supposed reward), but he said later on that he did not regret leaving the challenge unfinished.

 

All in all, a great experience. Solid, not-too-pricy food, solid service, and a clean environment … just solid all around.

 

 

 

 

Final Rating: 8/10

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The Pilgrimage: Pho 75

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

We’re still here. The tradition is still going. It’s just been a while since my last review, but I felt it was time for me to catch back up over Thanksgiving break. What other way to get back into the groove of things than to review another defining aspect of the tradition itself, the Pilgrimage.

Just as Muslims take their pilgrimage once a lifetime to Mecca, so should every pho lover travel to the Washington, D.C. area, at least once in their lifetime, to experience the greatness that is Pho 75. As a matter of fact, so incredible is Pho 75, that I have already been there twice in the span of one year. Never mind that it’s only half an hour away from where my place. I’d visit if it were half a day from where I live. It is truly that good.

Pho 75 is situated in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the urban suburb (yes, this is a thing now) that is Rosslyn, VA. As a hub for the yuppie population of Northern Virginia, it’s not totally unexpected that the owners of the restaurant decided to settle down there. Surrounded by burger joints, seafood restaurants, and lots of creameries, the whole place is just food heaven.

Rosslyn Metro Station. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

Rosslyn Metro Station. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

The last time I went, it was for a reunion. As Pho Saturday apostles back in C-Ville, some of us had graduated and moved to all different places in the country to begin real life. That weekend though, the few of us, with some new recruits, got back together to experience the tradition once more. Laughing and having a good time the whole way there, we arrived off the metro station in high spirits, and very hungry.
When we opened the front doors to Pho 75, we saw that the restaurant was packed and the line was almost out the door. While we had a decent wait our first time here, we couldn’t help but be surprised. No doubt, Pho 75 was the largest pho joint I’ve ever been to, and to see every single chair at every single table being occupied by pho-lovers alike was just amazing. Sooner than we expected, our waiter beckoned us over to a long table near the center of the room.

Pho 75's interior during its off hours.

Pho 75’s interior during its off hours.

The menus he handed us were just a single-sided large piece of some laminated material. On it, were a few appetizers, a few desserts, and the rest of it, dedicated to pho. On it, we were reminded that we had the option to custom add topping cups with additional meat, or other garnishes such as vinegar-soaked onions. Hungry as we all were, every one of us got another topping cup of meat (I think I ordered a cup of fatty-brisket), and about half of us each, a dessert (which ranged from a delicious corn pudding to a milk & jello mixture, also excellent).
In just a few minutes (which seemed like an eternity), the pho arrived. Giant bowls of steaming hot, aromatic goodness. Not only were the default portions hugely generous, but each topping cup of meat was also enormous. These “cups” were actually the small rice bowls you get at Asian sit-down restaurants, filled with your selection of meat and broth. For those of us who ordered the onion toppings, it was the same-sized bowl but filled to the brim with crunchy, flavorful onion slices. Combined, the pho and the topping cups ran a little bit above $10, but no doubt, it looked to be the most filling pho I’ve ever had.

The real deal.

The real deal.

Not only were the noodles and meat cooked to perfection, but the broth was also perfect. Meaty, flavorful, and not too oily, it would have been perfect by itself without condiments. The available assortment of garnishes and everything else (the typical) only made the pho better. I can say nothing bad about the food. Between the slurping of our noodles and our joyous laughter, I imagine that everyone else there was equally pleased with the experience.

Delicious.

Delicious.

That’s not to say the service and décor wasn’t without its flaws. Generally quick, but not necessarily pleasant service dampened the experience somewhat, and the dirty bathrooms made the after-meal wash-up a little distasteful. Overall though, the quality of the food there more than made up for the flaws. Also, if I remember correctly, pho 75 also only accepts cash, but this is quite typical of pho restaurants nowadays so no surprises there.

I also liked the set-up of the restaurant. If you came in by yourself, you were seated at a large table with a bunch of other pho-loving strangers. A great way to get out, and meet new people over a bowl of piping hot noodle soup! What’s not to love about that?
Ultimately, pho 75 is worthy of a trip if you’re ever around the D.C. area. Certainly, it’s worth a once-a-year trip if you live as close to it as I do. I actually plan on going back again this Saturday … and I’m already excited!

Enjoy Turkey day everyone!

 

Final Rating: 9/10

Second Chances: Pad Thai

Thoroughly disappointed by our regular ritual ground, we sought out another site to carry out our rites. After some meandering, we discovered an oft forgotten location in the “back woods” of Charlottesville, a little place called Pad Thai. Yes, we knew the place was not Vietnamese. Yes, we knew our last Thai pho experience was less than stellar. But we were so disappointed last week that we just had to try something new.

Certainly the interior of the place gave off a ritualistic vibe. Dim, quiet, and spacious – it was a rather different environment from your typical pho restaurant. The owner, a well-built Thai man in his fifties, greeted us and walked us to a corner table by the window, probably the brightest lit area in the whole building. I couldn’t help but notice his outfit, a bandana likely bound from an American flag, a shirt with a soaring bald-eagle, and torn, rugged-looking jeans. I was hoping the food wasn’t as Americanized as he was.

Pad Thai owners and chefs Santi and Utaiwan Ouypron. Photo courtesy of Elli Williams.

Pad Thai owners and chefs Santi and Utaiwan Ouypron. Photo courtesy of Elli Williams.

We found the same branded “Thai pho,” but this time with a little more variety. After sifting through the meat options and the broth options, I opted for the “traditional/clear broth w/ beef brisket Thai pho.” When our food arrived, I was both pleased and disappointed at the same time – a rather modest bowl of soup, but with a very pleasant aroma. I did notice that the restaurant did not provide us with any condiments or garnishes to add, but with the soup already smelling so delectable, I figured it wouldn’t make things that much better. I dug in.

Small-portioned, but big on flavor.

Small-portioned, but big on flavor.

I immediately found my taste buds washed over by a wave of flavor. I could not quite pinpoint what went into it; it was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. It was definitely not the same as what I expected from a bowl of Vietnamese pho, but it was delicious nonetheless. I could taste the vestiges of some Thai spices with what was likely a beef broth foundation, supplemented by a few drops of sesame oil (you can never go wrong with sesame oil). The experience was turning out to be excellent – great soup, tender beef, smooth noodles – until I uncovered the cabbage. The same nightmare I had from Thai 99 2 was coming back to haunt me.

I still don’t understand what it is with Thai people and cabbage. I figure it’s probably their attempt to add something a little healthy to an otherwise not-too-good-for-you lunchtime option. But why ruin an otherwise pleasant experience with something that does not belong? I wouldn’t have minded if they had provided a separate plate of cabbage to eat with the soup, but certainly not if they directly added the cabbage to the soup. The cabbage takes away from the flavor, and adds an awkward texture. I probably would have been willing to pay an additional dollar to get rid of the stuff – I really do hate cabbage.

More than just annoying.

More than just annoying.

Overall, the pros of the place outweighed the cons. Good service (the owner was a great guy, funny and easy to talk to), high quality of ingredients, and even a delicious complementary desert that I cannot even begin to describe to you (fried banana in something with red bean paste?). All of it was only offset by the anomaly that was cabbage.

 

Final Rating: 6/10

The Birthplace: Lemongrass

This is the apple of Newtonian physics, the Gaia of Greek mythology, the Big Bang of the universe – this is where it all began.

UVA's historic "corner." Along these streets lies Lemongrass. Photo credit courtesy of Adrena Photography.

UVA’s historic “corner.” Along these streets lies Lemongrass. Photo credit courtesy of Adrena Photography.

After being away from Charlottesville for two months, I wanted to say I missed the place. I wanted to miss their roadside locale, in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a large college town. I wanted to miss the owners of the restaurant, greeting us with their cute Vietnamese accents and bright smiles. I wanted to miss the feeling of a bowl of pho after a week of hard work. But after visiting it for the first time this summer, I can honestly say I miss almost nothing.

I’ve said that I feel the pho at Lemongrass is quite mediocre. To be completely truthful, I think certain things about the place aren’t bad. With its strong yet not too strong uniquely herbal flavoring and its meaty heartiness, the restaurant certainly gets the broth right. The brisket is also cooked to a melt-in-your-mouth texture and the noodles are more than passable. The overall quality of ingredients and garnishes in any given bowl of soup is up to par with many better pho restaurants in northern Virginia.

A disappointment.

A disappointment.

What is not passable is the quantity of ingredients in their pho. Let’s get real – when you pay $8.50 for pho, you expect to be at the very least, full, after the meal. At Lemongrass, $8.50 will get you half a bowl of noodle soup and a tiny plate of garnish for two people. The amount of meat and broth that go into the pho is just abysmal. When I visited recently, I counted four pieces of meat and the soup level did not even approach half the depth of my bowl. I was disappointed. Is this the birthplace of the namesake tradition? Is this the place that really inspired our passion for pho?

Vietnamese restaurants pride themselves on value and efficiency – quick, cheap, and delicious food. Lemongrass’s pho might scrape by in just one of those criteria. Aside from being overpriced, we waited quite a long time for our meager soup to arrive, certainly unacceptable given how empty the restaurant was the day we were there. All for what? Half of a meal? What’s worse is that the only serve pho on Saturdays and Sundays! The owners of the restaurant claim this is to ensure the quality of the broth. In the end, Lemongrass is a Thai/Vietnamese fusion restaurant, but if they want to serve pho, they need to do it right – and not spend five days a week trying to fix their mistakes.

 

I can only hope we were there on a bad day. After all, Lemongrass is the birthplace of our tradition. It’s always held a special place in our hearts.

 

Final Rating: 4/10

A Siamese Take on a Classic: Thai 99 2

Without a sizeable Vietnamese population, it’s hard not to revisit pho places in Charlottesville multiple times. So eager to try something new, we set out on a quest to discover a hidden gem amongst the mediocrity. After doing some research online for “pho places in C-ville,” we stumbled upon a Thai place called Thai 99 2 with good reviews that claimed to serve pho. Naturally curious, we set out Saturday morning to give it a shot.

When we arrived, the first thing we noticed was that the parking lot was completely empty. Just from its location alone, I could understand this. Tucked far and away from the main roads, it’s a restaurant that is difficult to accidentally stumble upon. In addition, its distance from large shopping centers in the area means you have to go out of your way to grab a bite there. Without giving it too much thought, however, we ventured onward.

Thai 99 2 Decor1

I was initially surprised. The décor of the place was far better than any pho place I’ve been to in the states and the staff was warm and welcoming. We sat by the window and starting flipping through the menus. Sure enough, on the noodles & soups page we found their Thai Pho Combo. Containing the usual garnishes and meats found in traditional pho, we imagined it couldn’t be too different. Boy, were we wrong.

Thai 99 2 Decor2

When the soup was brought out, it reminded me more of Szechaun beef noodle soup. Its broth had a darker color characteristic of soy sauce and with plenty of green onion, red chili pepper, and white pepper, it certainly smelled like it. While the soup didn’t resemble anything like the pho we were used to, it still looked appetizing. There was plenty of good quality beef, thin rice noodle, and a decent handful of bean sprouts and basil leaves to add. To top it all off, there was a mystery sauce, which, after asking our waitress, we learned, was the dipping sauce for the meat. I tasted a little of it and I quickly learned it was something I should not add to my soup. A little sweet and extremely sour, it should be used sparingly.

Thai 99 2 Pho

After completing our “ritual” and adding the garnishes and condiments we desired, we dove in. Despite my good first initial impressions, I was disappointed. There was nothing really special about it. A bit spicy, a bit sour, but mostly just soy sauce. It was dull and uninspiring – I ended up adding more hot sauce than I would have liked to flavor things up. When I stirred up the noodles from the bottom of my soup, I was even more disappointed. To my dismay, I had unearthed (unwatered?) a hidden cache of cabbage and celery. Now I’m usually one to eat my veggies, but the existence of the cabbage and celery here was completely unwarranted. The cabbage was soggy, the celery too crunchy, they seemed like unwelcome rubbish in an already polluted ocean.

As extreme as that sounds, not everything was bad. There was a great variety of condiments which the waitress later brought out, the quality of the ingredients was generally high, and the food was brought out rather quickly. Still, nothing quite makes up for mediocre food, especially when it is so pricey (for pho standards, at $10.99 a bowl).

 

Needless to say, I’m not in a hurry to try Thai pho again. Most of the reviews of Thai 99 2 were good – maybe Thai pho just isn’t the thing for me? Take my review with a grain of salt, and give it a shot for yourself. Who knows, maybe you’ll like it – let me know!

 

Final Rating: 4/10

This Looks Like a Meal for Superman: Super Pho

If Superman stumbled upon Herndon, Virginia on the planet that is Earth, he would eat here for lunch. Seriously, the menu has a huge Superman emblem on the front cover.

After returning to the U.S, I was craving some pho more familiar to my palate. Where else to go than one of my local favorites? On the suggestion of one of my friends, three of us set out midday Saturday to a well-known spot, in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a small-town suburb.

When we arrived, the place was packed, quite the contrary to pho restaurants I experienced in Cambodia (I believe this may be due to the fact that Cambodians have an aversion to Vietnamese culture due to their history of conflicts with each other). We grabbed a seat by the window with a beautiful view of the CVS pharmacy across the street, and ordered three bowls of their “super-sized” P1 option with all the meats, and a summer roll appetizer.

Warm and welcoming.

Despite how busy the place was, our food was brought out quite quickly. By the time we finished our summer roll, our enormous, piping hot bowls of pho were brought out. After being thousands of miles away for many weeks, the portion sizes here were one of the things I missed most about the states. For those of us with insatiable appetites who grew up on American-sized meals, an entrée there would be just enough to stifle my hunger, never really sufficient to make me full. But even amongst Vietnamese-American pho chains, the bowl of soup here was positively huge – by far the largest of any I’ve had. Even at $9.50, you definitely get a fantastic deal out of your money.

Now as this event was my return to the Pho Saturday tradition, it is due time for me to explain “the ritual.” “The ritual” is an essential component to the tradition, something we do every time before every bowl of pho. It involves indulging our senses with the scent of the broth, and letting our bodies be taken by the heartiness that is a good noodle soup. It is my ultimate way of relieving stress, a way of saying goodbye to the week behind us and hello to the weekend. Upon arrival of our pho, we cease all other activity, and in unison lower our heads as close as we possibly can to the broth without actually dipping our noses in, and intake two to three breaths of the aroma. Letting it overtake us, we then rise up, in unison once more, return ourselves to our senses and then prepare to chow down.

Certainly, the eating part at Super Pho was excellent. After adding the usual garnishes to our soup (hoisin, chili sauce, basil, lime, cilantro, bean sprouts), we added some of their sate sauce, an orangish roast chili oil that provides a smoky flavor to the broth. The result was a delicious concoction quite unlike any other I’ve had (just don’t add too much sate or you’ll find your throat quite scratchy). Complemented by hearty amounts of meat, noodles, and onions, Super Pho reminded me why I always look forward to Pho Saturdays.

Super Pho

I have no bad things to say about this place other than the fact asking for extra onions will cost you $1.50 a plate. Fast service, solid décor, and great pho – this is a place I’d definitely recommend for someone new to the pho scene in northern Virginia. Want to see their menu or read other reviews? Visit their website at http://www.superpho.net/.

 

Final Rating: 8/10

Food Unfit for a King: Pho 24

I was walking to the Siem Reap night market a few nights ago, and I stumbled upon an advertisement for King’s Road of Angkor. It promised “an authentic, modern vision of a traditional Khmer wooden village” with world-class dining options. When I saw their array of international restaurants included pho, I knew I had to visit.

Elegance.

Elegance.

And so I set out from my modest guesthouse on bike, eagerly anticipating the elegance that would await. When I arrived outside, I was impressed. Having visited the floating village of Kompong Khleang the day before, I saw a resemblance in the wooden roundhouses and cottages. Yet, the white limestone floor-tiles, the well-kept grass, and the glass-paned windows reminded me that villages of the Ton Le Sap Lake were worlds away.

Pho 24

I found Pho 24 tucked away in the back. I immediately noticed that the place was empty – never a good sign – but I ventured onward. The staff greeted me eagerly, and gently placed a menu into my hand. The pho special was the first thing on the list, so I ordered that and a plate of deep fried spring rolls. The spring rolls were excellent – crispy, with a delicious filling and equally zesty dipping sauce. I expected the pho to be of equal caliber, but when it arrived, I was rather disappointed.

While the normal garnishes and sauces were provided, I found the quantity of each to be lacking. The broth lacked the aroma that comes with the best pho and the amount of meat in my soup didn’t make things better. Upon tasting, I was immediately hit in the taste-buds with a wave of salt, uncharacteristic of pho. I got the impression that the salt was meant add flavor to an otherwise bland broth, but it wasn’t enough to mask the source of the problem.

Pho 24 Pho

Curiosity also killed the pho. Seriously though, who puts vinegar out in a pho restaurant? Being a somewhat adventurous eater, halfway through my bowl, I decided to try some of the unknown liquid next to the hoisin and chili sauce. Bad idea. My soup went from already quite salty to extremely salty and sour. While the whole mess was my fault, I would just like to warn my fellow pho-natics that vinegar + pho = no-no. Please don’t make the same mistake.

Certainly, not everything about the place was bad. The rice noodles were done right, the meat was high quality, and the garnishes were pre-cut. The lighting, the porcelain plates, and the overall atmosphere of the place was great. The view outside was wonderful, the bathrooms – very clean. The staff was also probably the friendliest I’ve met in any pho restaurant I’ve visited. In the end though, it’s not the service or the décor that makes a dining experience exceptional –  it’s the food.

 

Final rating: 5/10 (I originally gave this a 6, but decided it was too high)