Pho 95: Does U.S. Pho Beat Vietnam's? Not Always.
One of my best friends recently emigrated from Vietnam to the United States. He was born in Ho Chi Minh City, spent all 30 years of his life there and is a proud Vietnamese, but when I last spoke to him, he said something that surprised me. What he said wasn't so surprising as much as from whom it was coming. When I asked him what he thought of America, so far, he sheepishly revealed, "Kris, I can't believe I'm going to say this, but pho over here is so much better than pho in Vietnam."
I've long agreed with this sentiment and have spoken to many who do too. Granted, my friend now lives in San Francisco, a city that is pretty extraordinary across the board, culinary-wise. The consensus, however, is that the higher quality of the beef in America lends to the higher quality of the pho.
With all that being said, I, admittedly, had some great bowls of pho during my last trip to Vietnam. The tide has been turning the past few years, as American Vietnamese restaurants have been relying more and more on packaged spices opposed to beef as their main flavoring ingredient. Popular pho chains in Vietnam are succumbing to the same shortcut, however, and now it's almost impossible to find a great bowl of pho outside of certain mom and pop shops.
Wanting to disprove my jaded pho-disposition, I decided it was time for me to finally try what many feel is the best pho in the DFW area, Pho Bang in Garland. Not surprisingly, the afternoon I drove 20 miles to visit the restaurant, it was closed for business...AGAIN.
(Sidenote 1: Can someone please explain this to me? Why is this Pho Bang always shut down for business weeks at a time? There is always a sign on the door saying that the restaurant will be closed for repairs, city regulation reasons, etc. Is this only happening to me? Do I just have bad timing?)
Already in Garland, I decided to head down to Pho 95. I had yet to try the Garland-area outpost of this well-known chain. The Arlington location is wildly popular, but the afternoon I visited version just west of Garland, it was conspicuously quiet. I grabbed a corner table and ordered a pho tai bo vien, or beef pho with meatballs.
(Sidenote 2: We bloggers recently received a mass e-mail from the editor reminding us to remain as incognito as possible when visiting a future blog-topic restaurant. He's obviously never played 20 questions with a little Vietnamese iron boss lady.)
As usual, before diving into my bowl of pho, I had to snap the requisite food photo. Eagle eyes caught the quick motion, and that's when the fun began.
(Disclaimer: There may be some literary licensing, but the gist is all the same.)
Boss lady: Pivots, quickly reapproaches the table. "So, you are taking pictures."
Me: Nervous giggle. "Yes."
Boss lady: "Why are you taking pictures?"
Me: "I just like to take pictures of food."
Boss lady: "You take pictures of all the food you eat?"
Boss lady: "Is it for your friends or something?"
Me: Palms sweaty, I respond, "Yes." I'm actually thinking, "Can I just eat my food, please?"
Boss lady: Not completely convinced, "Oh, I see."
Me: Trying to change the topic, "So, is this the same franchise as the Arlington location?"
Boss lady: "Yes, but our pho is much better. You will see."
Me: I'm thinking, "Well, that can't be too off the mark, because Pho 95 Arlington is awful." But, I respond, "OK, great. I can't wait."
I proceed to eat my pho, nervously checking across the room, as boss lady keeps an eye on every bite I take and every facial expression I make. This proved especially difficult for me, seeing as how the pho was dreadful. Every sip of soup coated my lips with grease, and every bite of dry meatball was followed by a necessary gulp of ice water to wash it down. To be fair, had it not been for the grease factor, the broth would not have been that bad, as it was full of beefy flavor and not overly weighed down by spices.
Despite being a fat kid at heart, I left the bowl of pho half-eaten and made my way to the cash register to pay my bill. Greeting me at the counter, boss lady asked me if her prediction was correct, after all. I didn't have the heart to tell this, ultimately, very sweet and charming lady my honest opinion.
My friend will be visiting Dallas this winter, and I hope that I'll find a pho restaurant that will make him feel at home. Maybe Pho Bang even might be open by then.
9780 Walnut St., Suite 120