Searching for Vietnamese Noodles Phogeddabout finding a decent noodle shop in D.C.

Broth of Fresh Air: Wagshal’s approximation of the classic Vietnamese soup.
Darrow Montgomery

My pho and I are engaged in a battle of wits, and the soup is winning.

I’m sitting at the counter at Saigon Bistro near Dupont Circle and, per my usual routine, I’m dipping my stubby little soup spoon into the broth to test it. This is at least the fourth time I’ve slurped pho at Saigon, and, I have to say, no two bowls here have ever tasted the same. I had one that barely tripped my taste buds and another that was so thick with big fatty bubbles you would have thought the chef had melted a stick of butter into the broth.

But none of my previous bowls could have prepared me for my current one. What I’m experiencing right now is, well, pain. My tongue is seriously irritated, and it’s not the irritation of, say, a pepper or an acid because no obvious flavor accompanies the sensation, save perhaps the slightest hint of beef underneath what feels like a raw chemical burn.

I mount a number of frontal assaults on my soup. First I add hoisin, which just gives the irritation a sweet edge. Then I improvise and dribble in some of the nuoc mam sauce that accompanied my shrimp toast, which only intensifies the sweetness without reducing the burn. Finally, in an admitted act of madness, I squirt a few flaming-red lines of Sriracha into the broth, which qualifies my bowl, I decide upon tasting, as a Superfund site. Ultimately, I surrender to my radioactive bowl, which lies there, barely half-empty.

When it comes to pho in the District proper, I’m definitely a bowl-half-empty kind of guy. A year ago at this time, I wouldn’t even have bothered with this topic. But recently a few places have started teasing Washingtonians with the promise of good Vietnamese noodle soup within the city’s borders, eliminating the need to shlep out to Falls Church or Wheaton or some other rung on the District’s outer orbit, where the best pho parlors languish.

Saigon Bistro, you could argue, isn’t even the biggest tease among them. That honor goes to Pho 14 in Columbia Heights, which the Prince of Petworth started blogging about in January. His first post, featuring a photo of the then unopened restaurant and two virtually content-free paragraphs, drew a whopping 62 responses. Readers immediately ratcheted up their expectations with comments such as: “Hubba hubba! Can’t wait! I’m speechless…,” and “OMG,” which the commenter repeated 30 times.

No pho parlor could live up to those expectations, let alone one based in the District. There’s a reason, after all, our city hasn’t been awash in noodle shops, and it boils down (if you’ll pardon the pun) to economics. D.C.’s pricey retail locations make it almost impossible for restaurateurs to focus exclusively on Vietnamese noodle soups, like they do at Pho 50 in Falls Church or the small Pho 75 chain. Customers will shell out only so much for a bowl of broth with beef and veggies, no matter how good it is.

“It is harder, because the rent is higher [in D.C.] compared to any other area,” says Michael Tran, manager at Saigon Bistro, which is the first restaurant opened by Luna Howard, a hair salon owner in Dupont. “If you do pho only and nothing else, it’s kind of hard to survive.”

Which helps explain why both Saigon Bistro and Pho 14 offer more than soup. Of the two, Saigon Bistro has the more extensive menu, a rather substantial survey of Vietnamese cuisine from spring rolls to vermicelli dishes to clay pots. Pho 14’s offerings, by contrast, are more limited even though, aside from the soup, it peddles rolls, vermicelli bowls, and a small line of banh mi sandwiches. All of which sounds great, of course, until you realize how painstaking it is just to produce a fragrant bowl of pho.

“If you do too many things at one time, you lose” the ability to focus on pho, admits Gene Nguyen, owner of Pho Hot shops in Annandale and Centreville. Nguyen has been scouting spaces in D.C. to open a pho parlor himself, but like his contemporaries, he’s seen how the economics conspire against a traditional Vietnamese noodle-soup shop. His solution is to try to transform the standard, no-frills pho house into something more gourmet—a place where customers would willingly shell out more than $10 a visit.

In some ways, the suburban strip-mall pho parlors have done a disservice to the very product they sell. Their focus on soup over service (and the other niceties of the dining experience) have allowed them to sell pho at cut-rate prices. They have, in other words, set a de facto ceiling on the price of pho, no matter where that bowl is sold.

It’s a shame. Counter to its simple image, pho is both labor and time-intensive to produce. The kitchen needs to order fresh, not frozen, beef bones with plenty of marrow in them. The cooks must simmer those bones for at least six hours with a blend of spices, which vary depending on the flavors they want to emphasize, maybe the licorice sweetness of star anise or the warm sweetness of cloves. They must add and monitor the various cuts of meat to guarantee that none of them get overcooked. And perhaps most important, they must let the broth cool, so that a layer of fat forms on the surface. Once they reheat the pot, that fat then dissolves into the liquid, providing the body and big beefy wallop that defines the best pho.

There are shortcuts, naturally, that a pho house can take. It can skip the bones and use meat only to produce the broth, which significantly reduces the cooking time. Or it can bulk up the flavor of a thin broth by adding an insane amount of MSG. Now, I’m not suggesting that D.C.’s pho parlors do this, but I will say this: I’ve not had a great bowl of pho at either Saigon Bistro or Pho 14. The latter’s soups occupy a sort of frustrating middle ground, neither poor enough to dismiss nor superior enough to endorse. Much of the time I feel like I have to will flavor into existence at Pho 14.

I had no such problem with the take-away soup at Wagshal’s Delicatessen on Massachusetts Avenue NW, the most recent (and most unlikely) pho pusher in the District. The kitchen uses marrow, neck, and oxtail bones provided by Wagshal’s Market, arguably the best butcher shop in town, which results in a broth fragrant with beef and spice…and way too much sugar and cinnamon. It’s pho as conceived by non-Vietnamese mostly for non-Vietnamese eaters, a nice mainstream gesture to Southeast Asian cooking but ultimately a wild stab at authenticity.

The best pho in the District continues to be the one at Nam-Viet on Connecticut Avenue, where the tiny tell-tale bubbles of fat fill your mouth with rich beef flavor. It’s broth so good you don’t need to punch it up with garnishes, which is a good thing. Because my most recent bowl at Nam-Viet didn’t include Thai basil, jalapeno rounds, or culantro. Which is a whole ’nother frustration.


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Our Readers Say

You have to be careful about Vietnamese joints even in Virginia. I have run into a couple which were absolutely HORRIBLE. One place didn't last too long. can't remember the name but it was at Lee Hwy and Lexington in Arlington. The pho tasted like dishwater (really) and the cha gio spring rolls were made with EGGROLL WRAPPERS!! YYYYYEEEEEUUUUUCCCCKKKKK!!!

Worse than that is a joint called "Pho King" at 3114 Mt Vernon Avenue in Alexandria. Absolutely the WORST "phoking" Vietnamese food I have ever had the misfortune to have to pay for. The same dishwater pho and eggroll wrapper cha gio, PLUS the Vietnamese hieu tieu Bo Kho beef stew was like watered ddown Dinty Moore out of a can with some ethnic spices thrown in as an afterthought. I did ask the proprietor why the eggroll wrappers. She said it was because so many people ordered carryout and rice paper did not travel well. Sa wa di, you dien gai dau jokers.

On the other hand, Alexandria has a great Vietnamese place called "Saigon Citi" on Beauregard St. at Chambliss. I pretty much have found that places who advertise themselves as "authentic" are indeed. There is still the problem of getting them to believe that you want really authentic Vietnamese and not "authentic for Americans" Vietnamese, but it is worth the trouble.
"It’s a shame."

No, it's not a shame to be able to find value in good, decently-priced food. Even if there wasn't a recession in the rest of the country (funny, I don't see the government cutting back), it should still be appreciated.

Heaven forbid you might have to travel all the way to Rosslyn to go to the Pho 75 there. I understand a 30 minute Metro ride is a chore for most DC residents.
I go in once a week for a #12 large at Pho 88 in beltsville. For my money [and lack of willingness to travel very far], it's the best deal going.
I'm thoroughly disappointed with all of the Vietnamese places within DC limits. Saigon Bistro was just bad and I mean everything was bad. Pho 14 was mediocre and I no longer trust the Prince of Petworth's dining opinion if he thinks that place is so great. I'm a follower of Pho75 (Falls Church location) and as much as I wish they'll open a location within DC, I know that it will never happen because of rent prices. It's funny how the old Vietnamese restaurants in Georgetown (prob the most expensive rent ever) aren't mentioned in the article. Miss Saigon is a horrid place and their pho is like eating 10 pounds of salt. How the hell do they remain open? Maybe the Vietnamese should open up in a less expensive area in DC (kind of how all of the Ethiopian is on 9th street and people used to be afraid of that area). I would possibly go to Anacostia for a great bowl of pho. It would even revitalize the neighborhood the way a Whole Foods does. All of the DC yuppies would flock to the location and all of a sudden condos would pop up because of good pho. It's a win-win situation. Will some Nguyen person do this please?
My favorite pho place is in Crofton, MD. Besides great pho they also have spring rolls you wrap yourself from shrimp grilled on a sugar cane. My mouth is drooling at the thought. However there is an okay place in SE on PA Ave that will hold over a pho craving for a day or two.
Why do people complain about um....everything? It's soup! I'm asian. Part Viet, part Thai. It will never taste like Grandma's, cos it's not yer Grandma's. Nam Viet and Pho 14 are sufficient places to get everyday Viet cuisine in DC. Like so many other people -- if you're so anal and need to complain a lot: just hit up Eden or Wheaton. If you can't find a good (hidden) spot, then fly to Saigon. No more whining please! It's soup! P.S. I need a job.
Not complaining about "average" on my part, Tai. The restaurants I referenced were/are places where it's not "just" soup; in those joints it is not EVEN soup, it is dishwater. AND htese places are not in DC but rather in the "Pho Paradise" of Virginia. Cia Gio made with eggroll wrappers ought to be a five-yaar felony.
So Tim, (or any other pho afficionados) What do you think of the little wall pho' shop in Chinatown, the one next to Kanlaya? I thought it was too bland. I'd be interested in your opinions of how Saigon Saigon & Pho 14 compare to the Chinatown one before I venture out of my neighborhood. (Yes, even Columbia Heights is 'far' for me. If I can't walk...)
saigon bistro, sorry.

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