April 17, 2008
I’ve passed Phở One many, many times while on my way to the warm, waiting arms of Bistro Le Cep and keep telling myself that “One of these days…I swear I’m finally going to try that place!” Today was that day.
And, dear God, am I glad that I did.
Phở One was packed when I arrived with my lunch companions. Always a good sign in my book… The staff were friendly and acted as excited to see us as if we were the only customers in the restaurant. Since there were three of us, we decided to go family-style with the appetizers and entrees, to maximize our eating potential.
Now, a word of warning: Phở One does not have the traditional foreigners-catering-to-clueless-Americans menu whereby there are pictures of the food which you can simply point to, perhaps while grunting. They do have some helpful explanations of the various dishes, in case you’re unfamiliar with the delicious bounty of Vietnamese cuisine. They do not, however, have pronunciations of the dishes which are — invariably — never pronounced as they are spelled (phở is “fuh,” bun is “boon,” thit is “tit,” etc.). So, if you’re like me and either have an extremely limited Vietnamese vocabulary or none at all, simply order by the menu numbers, such as B-6 or C-4. Leave the mangled pronunciations to the next table.
We ordered two different types of spring rolls to start: your garden-variety fried rolls and your soft, rice paper rolls. The soft rolls had the added benefit of having enormous strips of barbecued chicken and hoisin sauce inside; they were much heartier than your typical spring roll. We also ordered chè ba màu along with our jasmine iced teas, so that they would be nice and melty by the end of the meal.
The entrees came out more quickly than expected. The other patrons seemed to be getting the same quick, efficient service, making Phở One a good choice for a lunch hour destination. We ordered the standard phở tái (rice noodle soup with thin strips of medium-rare beef and various herbs); another standard, bún thịt nướng (vermicelli with barbecued pork and fresh vegetables); and a bit of an outsider, cơm tấm bi cha trung opla (rice with shredded pork, pork loaf and one egg, sunny side up). I call the cơm tấm bi cham trung opla the outsider since I wouldn’t normally order my cơm tấm with an egg…or pork loaf. But that’s the way my dining companion likes hers, and so that’s the way we had it.
I have to say, I really liked the egg with the cơm tấm. It gave the whole thing an almost chicken-fried rice feel, frankly. It was served with the traditional bowl of broth, meant to wet your throat while eating so much sticky rice. I highly recommend it as an alternative to the regular routine of phở.
The phở tái itself was simply divine: fragrant, fresh and addictive. When my Vietnamese dining companion jokingly complained that Phở One didn’t have any meatball phở (bò viên) on their menu, the waiter simply grinned and within a minute had brought out a small bowl filled with meatballs. He told her in Vietnamese, “You have to know to order them!” A good tip, since their meatballs are perhaps the best bò viên I’ve ever tasted.
My bún thịt nướng was the same wonderful comfort food that I’ve known and loved since college. I confess to almost always ordering bún with chopped up eggrolls — perhaps the Vietnamese equivalent of putting macaroni and cheese on your grilled cheese sandwich, if we’re sticking to the comfort food analogy — which isn’t very good for you, but stills your soul. Today, however, I stuck with traditional pork and felt, suddenly and startingly, like a grown-up. It was an odd thought to associate with a bowl of noodles, but I comforted myself that at least I was a grown-up with fun taste in food.
Throughout the meal, the sight of the chè ba màu waiting for us was almost like gilt on a lily. We were all stuffed by the end of our family-style dig-in, but managed to make room for our dessert drink. If you’re put off by the idea of beans — mung beans, at that — in your dessert and/or drink and/or dessert drink, please just do me a favor and try one little spoonful of chè ba màu. I promise that it will change your entire outlook on beans as a sweet, delicious dessert alternative. It might not make you crave chocolate any less, but you’ll definitely broaden your sweet-tooth horizons. And that’s never a bad thing… The chè ba màu at Phở One was like their meatballs: probably the best I’ve ever had.
The whole atmosphere in Phở One is very traditional: you receive a large spoon and a pair of chopsticks with which to eat your phở; there is the always-amusing wheel of condiments on the table containing all the old favorites (hoisin sauce, fish sauce, chili sauce, etc.); as previously mentioned, the cơm tấm dishes come with a bowl of nước chấm to wash down the rice; and, perhaps most importantly, the check is not brought to your table. The Vietnamese consider it quite rude to bring a tab directly to a table, since it is seen as “rushing” the customer out of the restaurant. You’ll need to pay up front.
If you’re in the neighborhood and happen to be craving not just phở, but any other Vietnamese food, I couldn’t reccommend Phở One any more highly. The prices are reasonable, the staff are friendly and the food is sitting at about an eleven on the one to ten scale. Just remember their delicious meatballs aren’t on the menu!