Simply Pho Is More Than Its Name Suggests
Get a behind the scenes look at Simply Pho by checking out our slideshow.
The name of the restaurant is completely misleading, as I discovered during my first meal there.
I was seated at one of the two dozen four-tops scattered throughout the spacious dining room and was handed a menu seven pages long. I found appetizers, banh mi, rice plates, fried rice, noodle plates, noodle soups, smoothies, vegetarian dishes and, finally, a section for pho, featuring 19 different varieties of the traditional Vietnamese soup. Nineteen out of more than 100 items. So no, it is not, as the name implies, Simply Pho. It's so much more.
I know less than I should about Vietnamese food, so I recruited my friend Minh to join me and help decipher the restaurant's menu. Though it's helpfully translated into English, it features a lot of dishes that seem to be permutations on a theme. How to know which is the best or most interesting, or the most likely to satisfy?
Minh chatted with the waitress for a few minutes in the percussive, sing-song tones of their native language — though, he admitted to me, his Vietnamese is rusty — and in less than five minutes an alluring bowl of mi quang appeared before us. At first glance I had no idea what it was. There were black sesame crisps floating atop a mound of noodles so yellow they were almost approaching fluorescent. Bright pink and red shrimp poked out from beneath coarsely ground peanuts, contrasting with the fresh sprigs of grass-green cilantro and water mint nestled around the edges of the bowl. Once we started digging deeper, we found ruddy chunks of pork — so tender that we could pull them apart with our fingers — and a thin, dark-brown broth flavored with fish sauce and meat juices.
It required a feat of chopstick dexterity to gather every element in the bowl into a single bite, but when achieved, the resulting flavor combinations were something I'd never before experienced. Turmeric, lemon, garlic, mint, peanuts, basil, cilantro...so many characters working in harmony in this simple, classic Vietnamese dish.
In researching the cuisine, I came across a couplet that's often repeated in discussions of mi quang:
"Thuong nhau muc bat che xanh,
Lam to mi Quang anh xoi cho cung"
The poem tells the story a young girl who says she can prove the depth of her love for her mate with a cup of che xanh (green tea) and a bowl of mi quang. In short — when you love someone, show it with mi quang.
At the risk of sounding overly saccharine and sentimental, I think I get it. What better way to explain the intensity of your love than with such depth of flavor?
My first attempt at ordering at Simply Pho resembled a comedy of errors.
"I'll have the 'chaw geo,' please." I was trying to pronounce cha gio and clearly failing.
"The 'chaw geo'...Oh. I mean the A1. Guess my pronunciation is pretty bad, huh?"
"And a durian smoothie."
"You sure?" The waitress made a face, looking as if she had just tasted something disgusting.
As soon as the server walked away from the table, my friends erupted in a fit of laughter. We all knew about the reputation of durian — the popular southeast Asian tree fruit whose smell is so pungent and repugnant it has been banned from hotels, airports and other means of public transportation in Singapore and a few other countries. Andrew Zimmern, host of the TV show Bizarre Foods, on which he eats anything and everything, refuses to eat durian.
Fortunately, once the smoothie aptly described as "pig shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock" (thanks for putting that taste into words, Richard Sterling) arrived, there were already other items on the table to mask the unfortunate taste and smell of the durian drink. I never finished it.
The dishes arrived rapid-fire, one right after the other, with no differentiation between appetizers, small plates and main dishes. As soon as something came out of the kitchen, it was brought to us. Somehow, without even trying, we ended up with a table full of everything but pho.
As we dined on crispy spring rolls and soft spring rolls, vermicelli noodles and stir-fried noodles, banh mi sandwiches and com dia rice plates, we watched the people behind the long faux-granite counter and back in the kitchen...not really working. They were whispering to each other, then laughing uproariously or pretending to fight with chopsticks while placing them on tables. One young man strolled around idly with an ice cream cone in one hand, unsure of what to do or where to help, while my friends and I fiddled with our empty water glasses. The employees appear to be mostly teenagers who, while friendly and engaging, probably have more interesting things to do than wait tables at the family restaurant.
A man who I later learned is Simply Pho's owner paced back and forth with an electric fly swatter resembling a small tennis racket that made a loud CRACK sound when the electrified grid made contact with an unfortunate bug. He smiled genially and welcomed customers when they arrived, then his brow would furrow and his eyes narrow, and it was clear he was on the hunt for a rogue fly once again. Perhaps his vision was better than mine, for I never saw even a single fly in the restaurant, though I was simultaneously put off and bemused by his stalwart efforts.
The man with the fly swatter took over the pho spot on the corner of Milam and Anita from the previous owners, who ran Pho Nga there until it closed in late 2012. I read in early reviews of Simply Pho that the chefs from Pho Nga had stayed on and that the food had improved under the new ownership. I never had the opportunity to try Pho Nga, since it shuttered before I moved to Houston, but I can say that with the exception of a few stir-fry dishes that were heavy on the grease, my meals at Simply Pho were dependable, flavorful and satisfying.
Vietnamese food is notoriously simple, and though contestants on a recent episode of Top Chef may have crashed and burned in their efforts to overcomplicate it, it's not difficult to prepare until you start getting into fusion dishes. It's all about fresh ingredients, straightforward cooking methods such as stir-frying or boiling, and interesting combinations of herbs and spices. It's no different at Simply Pho.
Possibly the best dish at the noodle shop is banh canh hue, something I'd never heard of before nor expected to like all that much when I read the description in the menu. I ordered it because there was a little heart next to it on the menu denoting it as a staff favorite. It's described as "special translucent noodle soup with shrimp paste," but that hardly does it justice.
The defining feature of banh canh hue is slippery, jelly-like, clear noodles with little flavor other than starch, but with a texture so unusual that I immediately found myself hooked, fighting with my chopsticks to move noodle after noodle from the bowl to my mouth. Imagine gummy worms soaked in a warm broth until they take on the flavor of the liquid around them, which itself tastes like a milder version of the little cubes of shrimp floating in it. The rosy-hued dumplings of finely ground shrimp and garlic dotted with black pepper were equally alluring and caused me to reconsider the many ways one might consume shrimp. Vietnamese food will do that to you.
A basic vermicelli noodle dish with garlicky char-grilled beef is fairly plain, until you pile onto it the bean sprouts, shredded carrots, lime, jalapeños and just-chopped-from-the-plant herbs served on the side. Each table has a caddy containing Sriracha and hoisin sauce to add an extra kick of heat to your selection, and if you look like a daring sort, your server might even bring you a small bowl of shiny red bird's eye chilies, which pack one helluva punch in a deceptively tiny package.
Mi quang also comes with all the fixings — lime wedges, chilies, basil and mint — and I guarantee you, they're there for a reason. Extra herbs and spices can completely change the overall essence of a dish, and that's the intention here.
Some menu items, such as the stir-fried creations, are served without any accoutrements, because all of the necessary spices are added during the cooking. Sinful fried tofu, lemongrass and onions (Dau hu xao xa ot) is laced with hot chile flakes, while broccoli and beef with noodles (Com bo nuong) is slightly sweet with hoisin sauce and mildly funky from fermented fish sauce. Both come to the table ideally spiced. The stir-fried plates tend to be on the greasy side, which is unfortunate for a cuisine lauded for its healthy nature, but my dining companions, who enjoy Americanized Chinese food, thought nothing of the extra oil.
As with many practitioners of Asian cuisines, wasting even the smallest scrap of meat is anathema to most Vietnamese cooks, so the cuts of beef, pork and chicken can err on the chewy side. Even the popular protein that is char-grilled pork (thit nuong), with its crispy, almost dehydrated crunch, was marred by a sinewy mouthful every few bites. But this only proves the authenticity of the place. There are no frills here, and no one in the kitchen is putting on airs, pretending to be a four-star chef. They are dedicated cooks who know what goes into traditional Vietnamese food, and that is more than sufficient.
And then there's the namesake pho. As I said before, the restaurant's moniker is misleading, because there's so much more to this eatery than merely pho.
In fact, it took me three visits to Simply Pho to order the traditional Vietnamese soup, because I discovered so many other dishes I wanted to try instead. When I finally got the pho, it wasn't even because I was craving it. I ordered it because I'd been out of commission with food poisoning (unrelated to Simply Pho) for a few days and needed something healthy and soothing to pick me up.
I bellied up to the bar and accepted a giant glass of water and waited for my tofu pho to arrive. Five minutes later it appeared — a steaming bowl of broth, fried tofu, rice noodles, cilantro and onions, and with it a plate of bean sprouts, fresh basil and limes to add to the warm soup.
Throwing caution to the wind, I dumped everything on the plate into the pho, added some Sriracha and hoisin, and proceeded to shovel heaping spoonfuls into my mouth while broth splashed down my chin and all over my shirt. I didn't even care.
I slurped up every last spoonful — far more than I would normally eat — and when finished, I set the bowl back on the counter and pushed it aside, victorious. It's not that it was the best pho I've ever had. It wasn't the most flavorful or dynamic or interesting. But it was still enjoyable. And it was just what I needed at that moment: Simply Pho's simple pho.
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