If every restaurant in the world served only pho, that would be fine by me. Pho is the Vietnamese beef noodle soup sensation that has been sweeping the nation the last 10 years or so. Charlottesville has been a latecomer to the pho scene, but there is one place doing it exactly right. Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 5pm, Lemongrass (at 14th and Wertland streets NW) serves the best pho in central Virginia.
Using a West Coast style beef broth as the basis for the beef pho (1) recipe, Saigon native Hiep Pham and his wife Mai, proprietors of Lemongrass, can manage to put the complex concoction on the menu for only 10 hours a week because of the huge kettles and two-day preparation required to brew this wondrous ambrosia in their small kitchen. Serving it only on weekends “is the only way we can maintain a certain quality,” said Hiep, an inspired pho enthusiast. The broth, anchored by beef knuckle, star anise, cinnamon, ginger root, cloves, onions, and scallions and filled out with slices of lean angus beef and rice vermicelli, is an aromatic and sublime blend and goes for under $8. You can pile on basil leaves, bean sprouts, lime, and jalapeño slices at your discretion. And a healthy dose of sriracha sends the whole thing into orbit. There’s also a chicken version.
Moto Pho Co. on West Main Street opened its doors in August and I ran there. The place looks and feels great, emits pleasant aromas and has cool outdoor tables. But after a few visits, giving it ample opportunity, there are a few vexing issues: inconsistent broth; an overpowering and salty fish sauce; and, inconceivably, on my last visit, the chicken pho came lukewarm.
As the chilly night air bears down, you’re going to need some mid-week options and hot soup variety. Bangkok art school graduates Kitty (who grew up in her family’s Bangkok restaurant) and Pooh, both formerly of Tara Thai, took over Monsoon Siam, at Market and Second streets NW, last July and offer a passel of steamy noodle broths. They serve basic chicken and beef noodle soups, but they really let their stride out with their Tom Yum (2) and Guay Teaw Moo. Both soups have very similar stocks based in chicken, vegetables, and fish sauce. The Guay Teaw Moo is spiced with ground and blended Thai red pepper and galangal root—something like a more pungent ginger root—and has an explosive hot and sour thing going on. They lay in nice cuts of lean pork, meatballs, bean sprouts, and a dusting of ground peanuts. This stuff is supreme and goes for $8.95. The Tom Yum is distinguished by the addition of a sweet red curry paste, which makes it a tad, well, sweeter. It’s topped off with cilantro, scallions, and mushrooms. The Tom Yum comes with chicken or tofu at $8.95. And, if you’re ready to drop $13 for soup, the Tom Yum has a seafood option.
Café 88 on Preston Avenue serves a simple, hearty, and very solid beef noodle soup (3) Fridays and Saturdays. There’s bok choy, a heaping helping of roast beef chunks and hefty egg noodles in a zesty beef broth. It’s basic, and nowhere near the flavor adventure of the above-described servings, but comfort food at its finest, nonetheless.
Worth the drive is Pho So 1 on Rigsby Road in Richmond’s West End. Its broth is as good as I have tasted anywhere and I’ve slurped up enough pho—from Seattle to Southern California, from London to Houston, Texas (regrettably not Saigon—not yet anyway)—to float a cruiseliner. Pho So 1 really ramps up the fragrant elements of the broth and offers umpteen varieties, including tendon, tripe, and a chicken pho, Pho Ga. But it’s closed on Tuesday, which I have forgotten twice already.