Pho favorites - and not; also spring rolls
Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of Nov. 13, 2013:
Reader: I'm from Viet Nam originally and pretty picky about good VN food here. Mekong River is the only place I would go to now for anything besides pho. Pho Hoa on 11th used to be "the place," but it seems they changed ownership/chef recently.
C.L.: I visited the rebranded Pho Hoa, now Pho Ta, last year and did not think it was so bad. It's the same owner, in fact, but he stopped paying for the Pho Hoa franchise and went indie. In fact, I quite liked this rendition of Pho bò kho, which is essentially the stewy Vietnamese take on boeuf bourguignon. . . . My visit just nibbled a small slice of the menu. Everyone has their own bellwethers. Was not my favorite simple pho in the neighborhood.
Reader: The one dish to get at Mekong River is Mi Nam Vang (egg noodle pork and shrimp). For pho, you can't beat Pho Ha on 6th. It's as close to pho in VN as I can remember and at times better.
C.L.: In that 'hood, I still think Pho 75 is hard to beat for traditional beef pho. But that's all they serve, so for a different dish (spring rolls), Pho Ha is worth considering.
Reader: Nice Pho at Pho and Beyond in Willow Grove, Pa.
C.L.: I've heard good things about Pho and Beyond. The good eats are pretty scarce in that area-but a genuine pho hall is a fine place to start.
Reader: I have tried Pho 75 several times and just don't like it. It's too "clean" tasting (not really sure how to describe that) to be close to the real stuff I had back in Vietnam . . . I also don't agree with getting spring rolls at Pho Ha. Mekong River spring rolls are much better, much more like what my mom, aunts, and grandmother used to make. A slight variation that I actually enjoy is from Vietnam Palace, where you can get (to me), the best Bo luc lac (beef cube steak).
C.L.: Completely disagree with you here. Just had those spring rolls at Mekong, and I was not impressed. I much prefer the skins they use at Vietnam Restaurant, which get that bubbly, crackly fried skin. The plain dough wrappers at Mekong were just OK. I do agree, though, on Vietnam Palace's meat dishes (like the beef steak) - that longtime Chinatown favorite often gets overlooked. Still worthwhile.
Reader: I need pho made with vegetable broth or plain chicken, no pork.
C.L.: There is a fun, but totally inauthentic onion-mushroom pho at Vedge where Rich Landau gets some amazing umami-ness from mushrooms (and star anise) in his broth . . . but also pay attention, because while most of the common pho are made of beef, pho ga is exclusively made from chicken. And the pho ga at Thanh Thanh is really the best I've had. Of course, you'll have to get yourself to Kensington Ave., where a block or two below Lehigh, a growing community of Vietnamese storefronts has popped up in the last 5 to 10 years. Cafe Pho Ga Thanh Thanh at 2539 Kensington Ave., is surrounded by a few other shops I've not sampled yet. But pho ga is what is ordered here - there is no menu. And they usually order the noodles separate with a chicken chopped on the side. Incredibly moist. The broth is full of aromatics and flavor. Best part is the dip for the chicken - salt and pepper in lime juice, with habanero peppers for an extra kick.