You say “pho,” I say “fuh.” Which is the right way to say it, anyway? Inspired by a couple of bowls of pho, er, fuh, at Pho Phi (“Fuh Fee”), a new, fast-casual pho shop in St. Matthews, I dug into the roots of pho, and — somewhat to my surprise, since I thought I already knew this stuff — I learned a thing or two.
Pho isn’t really an ancient Vietnamese tradition, for example. It came with the French colonizers who took over what they called Indochina in the late 1800s, bringing with them French pastries, baguettes and the notion that cow meat can be simmered to make a delicious broth. Yup, pot-au-feu became just plain pho, and the pronunciation didn’t change much at all.
So if you’re still calling it “pho,” to rhyme with “d’oh,” perhaps it’s time to switch to “fuh,” to rhyme with “duh.” Whatever. Let’s go get some Vietnamese noodles!
Pho Phi, which arrived last month in the shopping center space vacated by Home Run Burgers and Fries, is the first and currently only outpost of a Vietnamese eatery with the same name in Austin, Texas.
Its decor is simple and bright, with travel posters and colorful photos of lotus flowers and lily pads to soften the edges. Service is fast-casual: Step up to the service counter, place your order, pay and take a number back to your table.
The menu offers Vietnamese standards with clear English descriptions for all the dishes. A dozen pho bowls are mostly $9.50 for a regular bowl and $11 for large, with the exceptions of a fancy multi-meat pho bowl ($10.50 and $12) and a clear, meatless pho ($8 and $9).
There’s also a choice of 10 vermicelli noodle bowls with a variety of toppings, ranging in price from $9.50 (for most options) to $10.25 (for grilled pork and shrimp or grilled shrimp and egg rolls). Ten rice plates are $9.50 to $10.25, and a half-dozen fried-rice dishes are $9.50 to $10.
Two egg rolls ($3.50) were beautifully fried golden brown, no grease at all and so crisp that the thin skin shattered to the bite. The innards — noodles, shredded cabbage and imperceptible bits of chopped pork — took second place to the delicious crunchy wrappers. They were plated on past-prime romaine cut into strips, and the thin red, ketchup-looking sweet and sour sauce was more sweet than sour.
Vietnamese spring rolls ($4.25) are hefty tubes wrapped in translucent rice paper. They’re stuffed with vermicelli rice noodles, lettuce, basil, crispy bean sprouts and your choice of a steamed pork and shrimp mix, grilled pork, shrimp, chicken or fried tofu. A pair, large and well made, got just the kick they needed from sweet-hot peanut sauce.
Let’s talk about Pho Phi’s pho: It comes in large portions, so you definitely get your money’s worth. Large, white porcelain bowls are filled to within an inch of the top with a clear broth, fresh off the stovetop, with the meat or meats of your choice sliced thin and dropped in just before serving, so they cook in the hot liquid while sharing their flavor and fat with the broth.
In contrast with the style of pho that’s rich with long-simmered meat and unctuous bone marrow flavors, Pho Phi’s broths are fresh, clear and light, a pure canvas on which to paint the flavors of your meats and added herbs and seasonings to your liking. This is where the plate of basil, cilantro, bean sprouts and thin-sliced jalapeños traditionally served alongside Vietnamese soups come into their own.
Pho Tai Chin, beef broth pho with eye of round and brisket ($9.50 for the regular size), came to the table as a clear, rather neutral broth with a faint brownish tint, with the sliced meats and thin slices of white and green onion floating on top and a bed of vermicelli rice noodles on the bottom. The eye of round, a generous portion, was flavorful and tender, with a bit of pink left at the center when served; the rest of it had already cooked in the broth. The brisket was thicker and already cooked, on the tough side. Adding the condiments to the rather bland broth kicked it up significantly.
As a blank canvas for add-ins, we also tried a bowl of meatless pho ($8) and got the most basic possible rendition: A bowl of clear broth and noodles with all its flavor extracted from white and green onions. It sounds a little, well, boring, but the clean, pure flavors were subtle and appealing. Adding the condiment herbs, a little hoisin sauce and a shot of sriracha, and giving them a few minutes to do their work, turned the plain noodles into something really interesting and good.
With a tall glass of strong, sweet and creamy Vietnamese iced coffee ($3.50), our filling Vietnamese meal for two came to $30.47 plus a $6.09 tip. •