One Pho the Money

Photo by Matt Rose

Photo by Matt Rose

Crafting puns out of “pho” — Vietnamese cuisine’s staple rice-noodle soup — is irresistible. Local food truck Pho Ya Belly has submitted to the urge. And a quick online scan of Vietnamese recipes yields such zingers as “pho-bulous.”

Pho R Us, the four-month-old Vietnamese noodle shop in Arden, brands itself one notch better. Down to the backwards “R” on its storefront, it siphons the same title as big-box monoliths Babies R Us, Toys R Us, et al. In so doing, the owners impart a smart chumminess. It all seems familiar, not exotic. Indeed, this restaurant is “for us.” (Say it fast.)

There’s a noted lack of pretentiousness about the pocket eatery. Atmosphere is hard to pull off in a strip-plaza nook; it doesn’t happen here, except in brief dabs. The fluorescent lights, for example, are covered with demure coolie-hat domes. Somewhat unfortunately, a flat-screen TV hangs high on one wall (it happened to be turned off during our visit).

Pho R Us forgoes the high-dollar décor of a typical “foodie” destination: You won’t find tin ceilings, tile backsplashes, or artful wildflower arrangements here. In some ways, that’s a relief, although traditional Asian music on the sound system would be an easy touch of authenticity, and much preferable to the milky jazz that accompanied our meal.

Still, the gigantic, blooming hot-pepper bush sitting at the cashier’s stand is worth any number of static embellishments. It greets diners even before the hostess/server does, giving a hint of the pho-rocious attention to pho-reshness (sorry, can’t help it) that makes up for the bare interior.

We started with vegetarian spring rolls — bundles of lettuce, tofu, and bean sprouts in delicate rice wraps — and Vietnamese egg rolls. The latter had a light crust and a hearty interior featuring finely minced pork and shrimp. A savory hoisin-peanut sauce and a restrained sate chili sauce, both typical of the cuisine, came in side bowls.

A few minutes before our soup arrived, we received a plate of garnishes that practically gave off sparks of freshness: sweet basil, lime, cilantro, raw jalapeños, and sprouts. Pho our main meal (ahem), we tried the House Special, a vast bowl with meatballs, eye-round steak, and beef brisket as the main players. It’s the one item on the short menu that comes just in “large,” for the surprisingly diminutive price of $8.45. Other pho bowls are offered in two sizes, with only a dollar’s difference between them — $6.95 and $7.95. In a town where a bistro burger, sans sides, is creeping past nine bucks in some places, these reasonably scaled prices were a revelation.

The House Special Pho, while undeniably hearty, managed not to be overwhelming, despite its trio of meat. Six other menu options were variations on the theme, featuring one or two kinds of beef. Poultry snagged its own category in a familiarly titled Chicken Noodle Soup.

With pho, though, it all boils down to the broth (reportedly, it takes eight hours to make). The Veggie Noodle Soup was populated with a laidback blend of tofu, sprouts, mushrooms, and jícama. But it was the broth that embodied the expert alchemy. On first taste, strong notes of cinnamon and cardamom tipped the balance to sweet; however, the savory side — courtesy of roasted onion and ginger — soon asked to be noticed. Excellent stuff. No faux pho here.

It’s refreshing to eat in a place that doesn’t oversell its delicacies. The over-explanation of menu items is an irksome trend that’s lasted decades now. A vibe of whimsical sophistication is the usual goal, but mostly it just sounds patronizing. (You can call a grilled-cheese sandwich “a true American classic with three tiers of cheesy goodness carefully toasted to perfection between two hearty slabs of whole-grain artisan bread” and it’s still, y’know, a grilled-cheese sandwich.) Pho R Us’s website does a good job of explaining the importance of rice-noodle soup in the Vietnamese diet, but the menu itself is pure minimalism.

That said, just a touch more background info would be helpful during the actual dining experience. A small glossary of pertinent ingredients and terms might suffice.

Traditional Vietnamese coffee was the sole dessert, and our server did give us a brief tutorial on using the single-serve, stainless-steel filters. Offered hot or iced, the drink is infused with sweetened condensed milk for a spot-on pick-me-up. Its richness works best as a meal capper. Enjoyed this way, the balance was exquisite. Pho sho.

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