Pho & Philadelphia: a historical bowl of Vietnamese food | The Triangle

Pho & Philadelphia: a historical bowl of Vietnamese food

Pho, the heartwarming Vietnamese noodle dish, is traditionally chock-full of a simmered broth, banh pho noodles, thinly-sliced beef and with sides of bean sprouts and herbs to add into your bowl. (Photograph courtesy of Deashoot at Flickr.)

In The Triangle’s last issue, the food that was discussed was ramen, the beloved classic dish that began in China before becoming a Japanese staple. And while ramen deserves the love it gets, I mentioned that there is a close relative in terms of noodle soups to ramen. You may know it, you may love it, you may worship it or you may be blind to it, but now it is time to give the proper respect to a Vietnamese dish: pho.

Pho isn’t talked about as much as ramen, but the “hangover cure from heaven” should get the recognition it deserves. This noodle soup is full of delicious broth, wide noodles, many different meats and tons of other additions. If you take a look around Philadelphia, you will realize that pho is a much bigger deal in this city than ramen. Why, you may ask? There is a simple answer: late 20th century Vietnamese migration.

Before the influx of Mexican immigration that has occurred in the 21st century, there were the Vietnamese refugees of the 1970s looking for a more prosperous life overseas. The escape from communism and a reclining economy meant a westward shift, and the United States seemed like the most viable option. A large population of those refugees made their homes in Philly, leading to many Vietnamese people being given the opportunity to start a business and a new life for themselves in the City of Brotherly Love.

According to the website PhoForever and other historical accounts, pho began in Northern Vietnam in the 1880s from a combination of Chinese and French influences, due to France beginning to turn Vietnam into French Indochina in the late 1800s. After the split into North and South Vietnam in 1954, the dish began to gain popularity in Southern Vietnam and started including the accoutrements that are normally found in pho today.

Speaking of pho today, where can you find good pho in Philadelphia? But honestly, to better pose that question: where can’t you find good pho in Philadelphia?

Vietnam Restaurant. Pho 75. Cafe Pho Ga Thanh Thanh. Pho Saigon. Pho Ha Saigon. Le Viet. Cafe Viet Huong. Pho Xe Lua. Vietnam Pho. Ngon Ngon Restaurant. Huong Tram. The list could go on for days. But this is what you need to know.

The benchmark for quality Vietnamese pho in Philadelphia is Vietnam Restaurant. The Lai family opened it in 1984, and this restaurant is where it really all began. While that may be the benchmark, some pho spots hold the titles of top pho in Philadelphia. Pho 75 seems to be the general consensus winner, as the cash-only South Philly spot on 11th and Washington doles out amazing pho and nothing else. The only other things you can buy on the menu are dessert and drinks, all of which are $2 or cheaper.

Another real deal spot is Le Viet. This modern yet traditional, upscale restaurant is serving up pho dac biet, which is the pho equivalent of a meat lovers’ pizza. Le Viet’s pho dac biet includes flank steak, brisket, meatballs, tendon, tripe and sliced steak in the broth. In contrast to Pho 75’s style, Le Viet has a huge menu with countless Vietnamese classics.

While beef pho is the traditional way, chicken pho also has its place in the debate. The ideal spots to go are Cafe Pho Ga Thanh Thanh and Thang Long, as these Kensington spots are dishing out delicious chicken pho for great prices. At Pho Ga Thanh Thanh, the elusive chicken pho is ordered by getting the broth, a half or whole chicken and the accompanying dipping sauce to combine all of the flavors. All that’s really needed is a lime. And while the pho ga is also a staple at Thang Long, the real winner is shrimp wonton, roast pork and roast duck pho. The kicker? It’s only $9. Talk about value. But, not to be forgotten, Thang Long is also home to quality vegan pho options! They offer tofu, meat-free meatball and chicken pho.

Another Kensington joint is Cafe Mi Quang, which is doing pho and everything Vietnamese for under $10. However, their special is their namesake, the mi quang! This noodle soup features a turmeric broth, fresh herbs and spices, ground peanuts and toasted sesame crackers.

Moving over to the Fishtown area, Stock Fishtown does proper pho, especially their chicken & vegan mushroom pho. This is not to be confused with their Stock Rittenhouse location, which does mostly Vietnamese and Southeastern Asian cuisine but not pho. Another sister soup of pho is the bun bo hue, which is made with a lemongrass broth and a lot of chilis, filled with thick noodles, beef, tendon, pig feet and ham slices. This can be found at Cafe Diem in the heart of the Little Saigon neighborhood of South Philly.

A few more spots worth mentioning are Ngon Ngon Restaurant and Pho Xe Lua. Ngon Ngon has a 16-hour simmer period for their broth, with their bone-in brisket and marrow and split meatballs creating a combination of flavors in their already rich broth. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, the hidden gem in the sea of neon signs is Pho Xe Lua, which is nestled on 9th and Race streets. The secret form of Vietnamese escapism is loved by many and cherished by all.

Aside from pho spots, there are a host of many Vietnamese restaurants in Philadelphia that are serving up high-quality fare. Banh Mi and Bottles is a new combo eatery, offering over 200 craft beers with their authentic banh mi sandwiches. They also have real deal cocktails, tamarind wings and scallion corn to bat. Nam Phuong has killer broken rice, vermicelli with pork chops and a straight-out-of-Ho Chi Minh lotus root salad. Their clay pot fish dish is as traditional as you can get.

However, the true dark horse of the Philadelphia pho scene (and this week’s hidden gem) is Cafe Viet Huong. This big dining room on 11th and Washington offers a warm embrace every single time. It’s reliable, it’s fast, it almost always has seating and it will never fail to warm you up from the inside out. Their absurdly large menu offers something for everyone in the entire family tree, but their real winner is their classic pho. Cafe Viet Huong, thank you for being a failsafe.

Philadelphia is full of Vietnamese culture, mixed with rich history and a Vietnamese population big enough to warrant some serious respect for the communities that have formed in this northeast city. If you haven’t tried pho yet, I highly suggest taking a trip to one of these spots. If you’re already a fan and I missed one of your favorites, feel free to write in to The Triangle! See you next Friday, folks!