One of my first forays into the Jacksonville food scene was trying something new for this foodie! Pho, pronounced fuh, is a Vietnamese delicacy – many liken it to the ultimate comfort food.
As a pho newbie, I was confused as to what the difference between Pho and Ramen was…and no, we’re not talking the Ramen you can get at your local grocery store for six for $2.00. Ramen has a more bold and forward broth (often a pork or soy based broth) and contains more mix-ins such as eggs and various vegetables. Ramen uses wheat noodles – and the noodles should be eaten within a span of a few minutes before they get “soggy.” Ramen can also include several different types of meat, such as chicken, pork, and beef. Pho, on the other hand, is a much lighter broth (but still full of flavor). Pho uses rice noodles or vermicelli – and so they stand up to the hot broth for longer periods. The meat options are usually different types of beef products – from tripe, tendon, brisket, and rare beef slices (the beef cooks to perfection in the hot broth). Mix-ins are standard: culantro and basil, sprouts, lime juice, and peppers. Optional hoisin, chili paste, and soy are often found at the tables. So, two very different comforting soups – but delicious nonetheless.
Shall we get to Bowl of Pho now? According to Google, it has a rating of 4.3 stars and 4 stars on Yelp.com. So by all accounts, this place is pretty decent to my fellow foodies of the webisphere. We went on a Friday night, around 7:30, so I expected to wait. But nope, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no wait when we got there and we were seated right away – in an appropriately secluded booth at the back of the restaurant. There was a smattering of other diners already there, tucking into their pho and boba teas. Our waitress came over to our table almost instantly and got our drink orders and returned just as quickly. As pho beginners, we requested a few moments to survey the menu. Everything on the menu had a corresponding letter and number code (ex: P4). This made things much easier when ordering, but somehow steered clear of a chinese take-out order-by-picture atmosphere. My dining partner wanted to go “full hog” and decided on the tripe, tendon, brisket, rare steak and flank steak (only leaving out the “meatballs”). While I’m a normally adventurous eater, I decided I’d keep it pedestrian tonight so I could eat my entire bowl and be satisfied and opted for the rare steak and flank steak option. My eating partner is a growing boy, so he ordered the large. I opted for the small, since I assumed it would still be too much for me.
Needless to say, once we had decided on our order, we chatted patiently and waited for the return of our waitress. Five minutes passed and we had not even caught a glimpse of the waitress. Another five minutes pass and we finally see her, apparently working hard on something back in the kitchen. There aren’t that many tables, but perhaps she was tasked with something and needed to finish. We’ll wait. She finishes up this task, comes to her two new tables and gets their drink orders and then to our table finally. She has a pad with her, but doesn’t write anything down. I’ve seen waiters do this – many succeed amazingly, and others unfortunately don’t realize their error in thinking they have better memories than they do. But we only order two bowls of pho, so it’s not a super complicated order. Order in, we’re feeling more confident. She passes by our table very shortly after that to drop off our topping tray (all pho orders get a ceremonious plate of toppings that look even more tempting than the pho – especially if you are hungry). She asks us again, because she had seemingly forgot our order what we had told her. We politely relay the information again and think nothing of it.
The steaming bowl of pho heads to our table within three minutes it seems – super quick. I’m grateful because I’m starving. My partner and I begin digging in, mixing in our toppings and spicing to our like. Little bit of limes, little bit of hoisin and soy (touch of sriracha of course) and some basil and sprouts. I soon realize, after digging further and further into my piping hot bowl, that there’s been a mistake – I have my partner’s bowl and he has mine. I fish out a strange white, spidery looking object. I know from years of watching Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern that this can only be one thing – tripe. It’s too late now – we’ve realized the waitress has switched up our orders (we ordered different sizes) and we had doctored up our bowls. Not one to back down from a challenge, I try the tripe and tendon. Let’s just say chewy is an understatement. But the rest of the pho is delicious – a Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup almost. The broth is delicate and seasoned perfectly (minus my spicy tendency to add Sriracha to everything) and the rare steak and flank steak are cooked to perfection – perfectly tender and flavorful. The noodles took on the flavor of the broth and made the meal that much more hearty and filling. But if you’re looking for something to “hit you in the mouth” more, I’d suggest something different.
So after finishing what we could of the bowls (neither my partner nor I could finish even a small), we began looking for our server again. Again, what seemed like 15 or 20 minutes went by before she came to our table (or even appeared in the dining room). At this point, we had been in the restaurant for over an hour and a half – and the pho had taken literally three minutes from the time we had ordered it to reach our table. This seemed to not be indicative of the service of the restaurant though – as other tables got their drinks, put in their orders, and ate and left in a very reasonable time.
Bowl of Pho – all in all, I would be willing to try it again, given other patron’s stellar service and the food. Perhaps this particular waitress just needed more training or less tables. I’d rate it a three out of five though – for the experience. I might peruse other pho purveyors in the mean time.