Pho House: authentic Vietnamese cuisine at reasonable prices
On a cold day, hardly anything tastes better than a steaming hot cauldron of pho, the delicious cilantro- and basil-infused beef noodle soup often referred to as the national dish of Vietnam.
Not only is it healing for the psyche, you can feel good about eating it for your physical self too. According to CNN, Vietnamese food ranks third on the list of 10 Healthiest Ethnic Cuisines, with "fresh herbs, lots of vegetables and seafood, and cooking techniques that use water or broth instead of oils—these are some of the standout qualities of Vietnamese food." Fortunately, there's a new place to get your Pho fix (and also other classic Vietnamese dishes like bun, banh mi, and cha gio) at Pho House on Washtenaw Avenue at Hewitt.
Pho House, in business only since March, is run by the Inhmathong family (who formerly owned the Laotian restaurant Banh Na), with the matriarch in the kitchen and at least two daughters helping out. Daughter Wendy Inhmathong describes the home-style approach to their food, saying, "Pho House reflects my mom. She grew up predominantly influenced by Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese cooking and culture." As for the experience they want to offer, Inhmathong says, "We envision Pho House as a place that is dive-y, positive, cheap, and (for) those seeking hearty meals. We are not aiming to be fancy, exotic, impressive, or (to have) ambiance," adding "jerks are not welcome." She also notes, "We are a family small business and plan to stay that way."
2224 Washtenaw Ave., Ypsilanti, MI
- Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Inexpensive. Entrees are $8-$13
- Noise level: Quiet
- Wheelchair access: Yes
Booths under the windows line three walls of the main dining area, some with a view of the cars speeding past on Washtenaw Avenue. But what the place lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in portion size—the plates of food are huge, inexpensive and tasty.
The meal begins with youthful waitstaff offering a selection of beverages, including coconut water, bubble tea with the large tapioca lurking at the bottom, and powerful Vietnamese coffee with chicory, served either hot or iced. Brewed in the back (rather than the "do it yourself" drip version of many Vietnamese restaurants), the coffee is thick, authoritative and inky black. A generous layer of sweetened condensed milk is also waiting in the bottom of the cup. When you stir it up and pour over a tall glass of ice cubes, it tastes like melted coffee ice cream. And the double wallop of caffeine and sugar delivers an electrifying jolt to the system.
Once you have a little buzz going from the coffee, try the fried spring rolls, or cha gio. Crunchy golden brown on the outside and deeply savory with pork, wood ear mushrooms, and vermicelli inside, they are delicious with the accompanying sweet and sour nuoc cham dipping sauce. The soft rice paper wrapped goi guon, sometimes called summer or salad rolls, were freshly made, but the filling of shrimp, pork, lettuce, herbs and rice noodles was unevenly distributed in my roll. I got several bites of just noodle and lettuce. A bit more mint and basil would have been nice, and more bites that included shrimp. The accompanying peanut sauce only partly made up for that.
The chao tom, "grilled shrimp on sugarcane," was puzzling, and the only appetizer I don't think I'd order again. These turned out to be flabby little deep-fried shrimp balls. I didn't notice any sugar cane, and couldn't detect any evidence of grilling either.
Unless you've experienced Vietnamese food before, a brief geography lesson might help put the meal in context. Vietnam is shaped like a long skinny S along the South China Sea, bordered by China in the north, Laos to the west and Cambodia in the south. The cuisine of the country reflects the curry- and coconut-infused regional influences of the southern neighbors, the rice culture of China in the north, as well as a history of colonization by France. The influence of France is represented by both cooking techniques and the surprising integration of foods like baguettes and pate.
Theories about the origin of pho abound, but the most convincing one I've read is that pho, pronounced "fuh," is a Vietnamese variation on the French beef stew called "pot-au-feu," also pronounced "fuh." The simplest, archetypal pho is reported to have originated in the northern city of Hanoi before migrating south, picking up herbs and other condiments along the way.
Although there are versions of pho using other proteins, beef-based pho is the most popular, and is often served with rare beef flank steak, meatballs, tendon, tripe and/or brisket in addition to noodles. Wendy Inhmathong says, "Many people have strong opinions about pho. How the broth should taste or what is authentic. But, pho is different for everyone. Each family, village or area has their style. It's hard to say. What we offer is our mom's home cooking from her village." Pho House offers perhaps a dozen different types of pho, with beef, chicken, pork and even a vegetarian version.
Their most basic pho, pho tai, is delicious, served simply with rare beef that is cooked by the boiling hot broth, and onion, rice noodles, scallion and cilantro floating in the soup. All pho is based on a bulwark of rich broth, and Pho House's broth is light in color, but rich and satisfying.
Wendy Inhmathong says her mother's recipe is a secret: "We don't even know." It's fun to doctor up the enormous bowl of steaming hot beef and noodles with the accompanying dish of fresh bean sprouts, mint, basil, jalapeÃ±o and lime. Order other versions with meatballs, tendon, tripe or brisket for desired levels of texture and hunger.
We also tried the pho bo kho, "kho" referring to a stew or braise, in which large pieces of tender long-cooked beef are stewed with hefty chunks of carrot and star anise. My husband enjoyed this dish, served with a choice of baguette to soak up the savory broth. I found the pho bo kho heavier, sweeter, and less appealing than the regular pho. Our server told us it was a popular choice for children.
Bun (which I learned translates as rice noodle) is called "vermicelli noodle salad" on the menu, and is another classic dish of Vietnam. In the Bun Thit Nuong, for example, cold rice noodles and sliced iceberg lettuce form the base, and you, dear diner, mix in marinated slices of hot grilled pork, a fried spring roll, bean sprouts and a dressing of nuoc cham at your desire.
It may not be the most artfully composed bowl I've experienced, but the various temperatures and textures of this dish, and the juxtaposition of sweet, sour, savory, and salty is delicious. You take a bite of hot marinated grilled pork intermingled with cold sweet and sour noodle and crisp iceberg lettuce, then follow it with the crunch of hot savory spring roll, then the chewy cold vinegar-spiked noodles. Yum.
One of the most clearly French-influenced offerings of Pho House is the banh mi, "Vietnamese sub," sandwiches. No one expects baguettes, mayonnaise and pate in traditional Asian food, but there it is. Banh mi choices include the "house special" with cold cuts (pork, pork belly, head cheese, and pate), along with grilled pork and grilled chicken. Served on a soft white roll, each banh mi includes "homemade mayo, pate, pickled strips of daikon and carrot, onion, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeno peppers," and comes in small and large sizes.
The grilled pork banh mi was an object lesson in the yin-yang balance essential to Vietnamese food: hot grill-crisped pork against the cold crunch of sweet and sour matchsticks of carrot and radish, balanced by the smooth creaminess of the mayonnaise and pork pate. All this enclosed in a soft bun, and just an occasional fiery spark of jalapeno. Wendy Inhmathong says, "Many people expect banh mi to come out quick. Here, it takes some time. We slow toast the bread. The grilled meats are made to order. We avoid precooking and microwaving as much as possible in order to bring out the freshness of the sandwich.Â It is recommended to call ahead. Also, banh mi sells out quickly on a daily basis."
So far at Pho House, we've most enjoyed the cha gio, the pho, the bun, and the banh mi. Other dishes we've tried have also been perfectly fine — but haven't necessarily drawn me back for more.
A friend really enjoyed the com ca xao xa ot, or stir-fried chicken and vegetables with spicy fish sauce. This big plate of rice, with large pieces of white meat chicken stir fried with green and red peppers in a gingery brown sauce was tasty but similar to dishes available in most Chinese restaurants.
Likewise, the fish with brown sauce, mi hoanh thanh do bien, was very generously portioned with large chunks of mild white fish and big pieces of shiitake mushrooms in a mild soy-based sauce. The seafood combo with bbq pork and handmade pork and shrimp wontons was also perfectly fine, but didn't have a particular defining quality that elevated it beyond tasty.
Our experience with the service was a little uneven. Mostly the staff was friendly, informative and speedy. But on one visit in particular, a new waiter was well-meaning but a bit awkward.
For example, he brought out a serving dish of hot food but no plates or flatware, then disappeared. We stared longingly at the steaming hot food, contemplating whether to dig in with our hands like philistines. Eventually someone at the table took the initiative to search out plates and chopsticks and an etiquette disaster was narrowly averted. Not a big deal, but little things like that can add up. As Wendy Inhmathong noted, they intend "to slowly work out the kinks and kanks."
I'm glad that that a family run business like Pho House has appeared on the restaurant scene. The relaxed atmosphere and personal touch are part of that. I'm all for authentic, homestyle cuisine at a reasonable price, and that is exactly what Pho House offers.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.