Unlikely brunch option? Chef favorite?
Ultimate hangover cure? Pho is for everyone
Photography by Brett Thomas
I’s kind of unbelievable that no one has copyrighted a franchise of self-help books entitled Pho for the Soul. The options are seemingly limitless: Pho for the Hungover Soul, Pho for the Flu Sufferer’s Soul, Pho for the Seasonal Affective Disordered Soul, Pho for the Chef ’s Soul, Pho for the Traveler’s Soul. The list of appropriate occasions to partake in this Vietnamese street soup goes on and on.
Rich stock, a mop of noodles, cuts of meat and a salad bar of garnishes: Pho is, at its heart, all about comfort first and customizability second. It’s a beautiful bowl that can be enjoyed by anyone, at any time and in any state of mind.
Pho will bring you back to life after a particularly rough night (especially when paired with a glass of chicory-scented iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk), it will clear your sinuses when cold season sets in, and it can transport you from Philadelphia (where pho spots abound) to the sunnier climes of Southeast Asia.
Recently, pho’s heady broth and vibrant garnishes have been used as a jumping-off point by several chefs around town. Peter Serpico is serving a pho sandwich at his eponymous South Street spot with thinly sliced grilled short ribs, jalapeño, mung bean sprouts and herbs on a custom-baked anise-scented loaf with a side of beef au jus for dipping. Peter Woolsey has added pho to his bistro repertoire at La Peg with a pho broth that begins with a clarified oxtail stock and is finished with dumpling-wrapped ravioli filled with oxtail spiced with Sriracha, ginger and hoisin.
And up in Fishtown, former Zahav sous Tyler Akin has opened Stock, a sleek soup counter specializing in Vietnamese fare with a focus on pho. He’s serving two options—a vegan mushroom variation and a beef bowl made with Lancaster-raised herbs and meat.
In the past ten years, Philly’s become a hotbed for solid pho options. Here’s a look at some of the best.
CHEF’S FAVORITE PHO
It seems every chef in Philly has a favorite spot for pho. Here are some of their picks.
Scott Schroeder, South Philly Tap Room
“Café Châu. It’s like the Vietnamese mom you never had cooking for you.”
Joe Cicala, Le Virtu
“I like Pho 75 because it is based out of my hometown of DC. I always get the brisket and eye round.”
Lucio Palazzo, La Calaca Feliz
“My go-to is the #4 from Pho 75. The staff calls me ‘friend.’ It’s a matter of routine.”
Aimee Olexy, Talula’s Table and Talula’s Garden
“For me it is the newly opened Stock. The vegan mushroom pho is right up my alley.”
Brad Spence, Amis
“Pho 75 on Washington Avenue. I get menu item #15 every time with extra jalapeños.”
610 Washington Ave.,
Saying that Pho Ha is the fast food of Vietnamese soup might be underselling it. But when you think about the progression of a meal at Pho Ha, it makes perfect sense. Sure, navigating the parking lot on a weekend morning requires all senses to be engaged, but once you’re seated a bowl of pho will materialize in front of you almost before you can say, “I’ll have the brisket, flank and tendon.” More often than not you’ll be waiting on your perfectly clear broth to cool before your salty lemonade shows up. Efficiency is key here. Service is swift to a point where seats never get cold, and the pristine broth is beefy with an herbaceous lightness that lets you know they’re simmering it in the back around the clock.
1122 Washington Ave., 215.271.5866
Head a few blocks west on Washington Avenue and you’ll find things a bit more relaxed at Pho 75, a late-breakfast go-to for so many chefs around town. The sunny pink dining room has windows on two sides and tables populated with older gentlemen in suits occupied with pots of tea and Vietnamese papers. On a weekend morning there’s soccer on the flat screens, and unlikely but entirely soothing Spanish guitar music on the sound system. Rice noodles sit in a Pho 75–branded bowl of stock with a wonderfully pleasant sourness, along with crisp rounds of white onion and slices of rosy flank steak poaching in the broth. Note to picky eaters: This is the place to visit when you have special requests. The consummately professional servers don’t bat an eye at requests for meat on the side or a small bowl of extra soup.
1100 Washington Ave.,
Located in the same shopping center as Pho 75, Nam Phuong has become the banquet- hall-meets-diner equivalent of Philadelphia Viet fare. The menu is epic. There are pages of appetizers, rice and noodle plates, family-style dining options for parties of four to 14, and a full bar if you’re in the market for a mai tai. The generous menu means that you can start your meal with Three Delight, an eye-popping plate of sugarcane shrimp, grilled meatballs and beef in grape leaves served with pickled carrots and daikon, or maybe summer rolls and a papaya salad, and follow it up with beef stew pho. It’s a dish that showcases the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine that brings together two comforting classics: the fresh rice noodles and herb garnishes of pho and fatty braised beef, and the sweetly long-cooked carrots and onions of boeuf bourguignon.
308 E. Girard Ave.,
A backpacking trip through Southeast Asia combined with a longstanding love for Vietnamese food solidified the groundwork for Tyler Akin’s Stock, a sleek 20-something- seat Fishtown BYO . The narrow space and smart sourcing brings to mind Momofuku, but the menu relies on authenticity over Asian-influenced Americanization. Stock takes pho back to basics with only two options on the brief menu: beef and mushroom. While both feature custom-grown herbs sourced from Tom Culton’s Lancaster farm and spices via La Boîte out of New York, his meatier bowl brings together thick-tender slices of short rib with tender meatballs run through with sweet spices. Bonus points for Stock’s Vietnamese coffee, cold-brewed with beans from neighboring ReAnimator.
222 N. 11th St.,
More often than not pho is more about the soup than the atmosphere, but if you’re looking to make a night of it, Vietnam Palace is the way to go. The two-floor dining space has a bamboo-heavy Chinatown-meets-tiki- bar vibe and the company may or may not be a bachelorette party en route to karaoke or a six-top of South Jersey diners in the market for a night of culinary exploration. Start with cocktails—Vietnam Palace’s mojito employs Thai basil and ginger in place of mint (a solid move, cocktail-wise) or even the Ecto-Cooler-colored Jade Martini that doesn’t skimp on the melon-flavored Midori. Order the Deluxe Pho, a soup that will have you fully prepped for a long night of Chinatown drinking.
4204 Westfield Ave., Pennsauken, NJ,
Café Châu was a cozy South Philly pho haunt before their Seventh Street storefront shuttered a little while back. Friends of the Châu family soon discovered that they had relocated just over the bridge in Pennsauken in a roomier but even more neighborhoody stretch of South Jersey. This stand-alone pho shop has picnic table outside seating in the warmer months that drives home the street-food aspect of pho-slurping pretty hard. The stock at Châu has an oniony sweetness. Tables of Vietnamese grandmas sip cold water scented with lime and icy honeydew smoothies.
1100 S. Columbus Blvd.,
Location is everything, and that makes Pho Saigon’s Columbus Boulevard strip-mall spot, next to a pretty good beer store and a year-round Halloween shop (with plenty of parking), ideal. The must-order here is bun bo hue, something that could be called the advanced version of pho. Spicier and stinkier (in the best possible way) bun bo hue brings both pork and shrimp into the mix, making for a spicy-sour bowl that balances the fermented intensity of fish sauce and shrimp paste with thicker noodles, super-fatty beef and the cooling–slow burn trifecta of bean sprouts, herbs and sliced jalapeños.
Café Pho Ga Thanh Thanh
2539 Kensington Ave.,
Located under the El in a less-than-picturesque part of Kensington, Café Pho G a Thanh Thanh makes everything easy. Your street-stylish server asks if you’ve been there before. No? Okay, well, the rundown is pretty quick: “We have chicken pho—traditional skin and bone or white breast meat only.” He’ll explain that there’s a beef version, but you can tell by his tone that you don’t want it. Iced tea, hot tea and water are the options for drinks. Go with the traditional chicken pho and iced tea and wait for the little dish of spicy chicken dip to land on your table. This silver-dollar- sized plate is a mix of slivered orange habaneros, lime juice, lime leaf, salt, and pepper, and it makes digging your chopsticks and spoon through your bowl a magical experience. Pro tip: Get the traditional if you’re in the market for pho stock—poached chicken livers.