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Monday, September 12, 2005

Pho 75 (South Philadelphia)

Rating: * * * 1/2

1122 Washington Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(215) 271-5866

Pho 75 is, for me, where it all began. To my knowledge, Pho 75 is one of only two pho chain restaurants (by that I mean more than just 2 or 3 locations). Pho 75 has 7 locations - they’re in Philly, Maryland and Virginia. The location in Arlington, VA is where I had my first bowl of pho, about 11 years ago. I haven’t been to the Arlington shop in many years, but I usually found it maddening to go there, because the quality of the pho was so inconsistent. I’ve had my best bowl of pho there, and many mediocre bowls as well. Now that I live in Philly, I’ve been to the South Philly location many times, and I’m happy to report that the quality of its pho is consistently high. Not the best ever, but definitely excellent.

Embedded in a Vietnamese shopping center, it has the perfect location. When I bring my family, after we eat we’ll wade through the crowd at the always jammed packed adjacent grocery store. Kai and I will ogle the lobsters and crabs crawling around in their tanks, and Maria will stock up on Asian cooking ingredients - the kind you won’t find at Acme. And I always find myself wandering through the trinket shops, awestruck by the airbrushed, glowing, back-lit wall hangings depicting rivers flowing through forests, with built-in sound effects of rushing water and chirping birds (and inside there’s some kind of rotating element that makes it look like the water is flowing). How, and more importantly, why, did somebody create this? Philly only has one of these shopping centers, and compared to the various sprawling “Little Saigon” centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s tiny. Even though there’s no Ranch 99 market (with the priceless slogan “we try harder for 100!”), the character is the same, and that’s what’s important.

The inside of the South Philly Pho 75 is cleaner than your average pho shop, but it has the standard array of long tables, fast service, and absolutely no decor of any kind. The soup is excellent in every respect: good broth, properly cooked noodles, and quality cuts of meat. On my most recent trip I went with my Indian co-worker Anand - he said he felt like he was in a typical restaurant in India, so I guess that means it has an “international” feel ;-) . It’s always fun to indoctrinate a pho newbie - hot sauce or chili peppers? lemon or lime? how much basil, hoisin sauce, and sprouts to add? One of the great things about pho is how much you can tweak the flavor after it’s been served to you. After just one trip, Anand has become a phonatic, insisting that we must go back every other Friday. If that’s not a sign of a good bowl, I don’t know what is.

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