Pho Bistro: Taste by the Bowlful
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Jan. 25, 2008
At first glance: This shopping center shoe box in Centreville is attractive in an understated way, with metallic blue lacquer tabletops, blue-glazed tile accents, sponged gray walls and large unframed paintings of flowers. The small foyer often overflows into the parking lot.
On the menu: Pho Bistro does not offer as many topping options as some kitchens: The choices are flank, tendon, eye of round, lean or fatty brisket, meatballs and tripe. But unlike many pho (pronounced something like "fuh" and with a slight question at the end) restaurants, it has a few appetizers, including vegetarian egg rolls, entrees and brothless noodle dishes. Pho Bistro also offers a seafood pho with shrimp, bay scallops and bits of squid, but vegetarians should be aware that it comes with the same beef-based broth as the regular version. ("Pho just noodles" is available with chicken or beef broth.) Bottles of sriracha, the increasingly common ketchup-colored chili sauce, and hoisin sauce are on each table.
At your service: The staff is friendly and brisk. Pho orders take only a few minutes, and cooked-to-order dishes not much longer. Though you will not be rushed out, customers are expected not to linger too long if others are waiting. The napkin-wrapped utensil bundle includes plastic chopsticks and flat-bottomed Asian spoons.
On the table: Pho is a partly prepared, partly do-it-yourself meal; but it's all about the broth, and Pho Bistro's version is fragrant with anise and other brown spices and no fat. A generous bowl of it arrives filled with thin white noodles and topped the parts of beef you have chosen, along with a platter of fresh mint or cilantro leaves, sliced jalapenos, lime wedges and bean sprouts. If you prefer the meat less done, you can request it served on the side and "shabu-shabu" (cook at the table) it yourself. While the broth is hot, add mint leaves and pepper slices so they have time to steep, add lime juice to taste then stir in the bean sprouts to soften. (Do not "toss" the noodles and herbs with one chopstick in either hand like salad forks; keep them together and turn the ingredients over gently.) Squeezing sriracha or hoisin sauce directly into the broth can overwhelm the flavor, so put a small amount on a plate and dip the meat. Lift a small skein of noodles at a time, letting most of the broth slide into the bowl, then gently slurp them up, using the spoon to hold the noodles if necessary.
Banh xeo, the crisp rice-flour crepe filled with bean sprouts and shrimp, is tasty, though it came without a knife (you wrap pieces of the crepe in lettuce and dip it in fish sauce). Pork chops, served with rice and salad, are thin-sliced shoulder blade cuts, nearly caramelized.
What to avoid: The summer rolls have so little shrimp that one half was only cold vermicelli and bean sprouts. Pho ga kho, mix-it-yourself noodles topped with crisped chicken and bean sprouts, is fair.
Wet your whistle: There's no beer or wine, but Pho Bistro offers soft drinks, smoothies, tea, coconut juice and house-made soy milk. Thai ice coffee is very good.