By Greg Cox
Entering Pho Pho Pho for the first time, your eyes dart around like a cat chasing a laser beam, trying to take it all in.
Scattered about the room are black and white portraits of cultural icons, a diverse collection that includes Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Ernest Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin. On one wall is a small gallery of vintage photographs from the French colonial era in Vietnam. On another, Bruce Lee movies playing on a flat screen add a touch of hipster irony. Framing it all, high on each wall, is a jaw-dropping display of chalkboard art in lines as intricate as lace: ancient warriors on elephants, a towering pagoda, helpful descriptions of menu ingredients, complete with illustrations.
In short, the atmosphere at Pho Pho Pho is just what you’d expect from the restaurant’s chef/proprietor, Quy Duong. A founding partner of Sushi Blues Cafe just up the street, Duong was a pioneer in the revitalization of Glenwood South, where he has introduced many to Japanese cuisine with a Western flair.
With the opening of Pho Pho Pho in March, the veteran restaurateur shifts his focus to the cuisine of his native Vietnam. Like the decor, his take on that cuisine is at once boldly eclectic and rooted in tradition.
As the restaurant’s name emphatically suggests, the house specialty is the meal-in-a-bowl Vietnamese noodle soup. Pho is offered in several variations, including chicken (pho ga) and a vegetarian version (pho chay) seldom seen in your standard strip mall noodle shop.
Duong’s beef pho will give the best of those shops a run for their money. His broth recipe is exceptionally rich (“we use a massive amount of bones,” he says), tinged with cinnamon, star anise and ginger, its surface spangled with chopped cilantro and scallions. The basic version comes with beef shank, meatballs, tripe, and rosy petals of rare lean beef — which you can upgrade to filet mignon for four bucks. It’s a worthwhile splurge, but by no means necessary.
You can doctor your pho to taste with the accompanying side plate of bean sprouts, basil, jalapeño and lime wedge, and from the condiments on the table. But do yourself a favor and taste that broth first, just as it comes.
The chef is so proud of his beef broth that he serves a small bowl of it gratis with an order of banh mi. And, while the house special version of that sandwich (with Vietnamese ham and pork belly) is worthy in its own right, it comes mighty close to being upstaged by the broth.
Duong also turns out an authentically fiery and funky rendition of pho’s cousin, bun bo Hue: beef shin, pork shank, spare rib, noodles and vegetables in a rustic, grease-slicked brew amped up with lemongrass, shrimp paste and a green riot of fresh mint, basil and cilantro.
The streamlined entree offering includes a few alternatives to noodle soups under the headings of Com (rice dishes) and Bun (vermicelli salads). The familiar vermicelli toppings are well represented, from grilled pork to spring roll to lemongrass chicken. A variation with crisp fried strips of spicy-sweet Vietnamese sausage, rarely seen hereabouts, is a rewarding alternative. Suon bo kalbi is another pleasant surprise: beef short ribs, Korean barbecue style, served with a small salad of cucumber and tomatoes, and rice topped with a fried egg.
If Duong occasionally dips his toe into non-traditional Vietnamese entree waters, he plunges in headfirst with his appetizer selection. Order steamed buns with chicken wings, and you’ll get them on a small plate with jalapeño, Vietnamese carrot and radish pickle, cilantro and hoisin sauce on the side. The juicy, crisp-skinned wings have been partially butterflied so that you can pull off the meat, tuck into a bun, and enjoy it à la Peking duck; or just pick them up and gnaw for a twist on Buffalo wings.
Bitter melon salad is another East-West fusion, pairing the exotic vegetable with shrimp, pork belly and crushed peanuts atop a lightly dressed salad of spring greens.
Grilled Pacific flying squid features a whole squid cut crosswise and reassembled on the plate, glazed with a spicy-sweet sauce, then carpeted with cilantro sprigs. Flanked by a cluster of lightly pickled julienne carrot and florets of cauliflower, it’s a still life on a plate. And for all its fearsome looks, the squid is exquisitely tender from its winged head to its tentacles.
Grilled fresh water prawns, brushed with honey, lemongrass and a hint of curry, and presented against a backdrop of bitter greens and julienne mango, also deliver on the promise of an impressive presentation. Mind you, these are not the slightly-larger-than-jumbo shrimp that usually masquerade as prawns. They’re the real U-10 deal, as in it takes ten or fewer to weigh a pound.
But Pho Pho Pho’s style is too brash to be contained in a plate presentation, or even within its exhuberant dining room walls. Hanging in the men’s room is a watercolor portrait of a young Vietnamese woman wearing a silk dress with a traditional Asian print. Prowling across one exposed shoulder and down her arm is a colorful tattoo of a dragon. At once elegant and sultry, the image is the embodiment of tradition and youthful daring rolled into one — which, you might say, is Pho Pho Pho in a nutshell.
Pho Pho Pho
510-103 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh
Prices: Entrees $11 to $16.
Atmosphere: ebullient, eclectic
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: generally solid with an occasional dropped ball
Recommended: steamed buns, grilled squid, prawns, pho filet mignon, bun bo Hue, beef short ribs
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in garage next to the restaurant.