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.
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.
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