I've never eaten pho in Vietnam. But I've enjoyed enough of it in Cleveland, New York, Montreal, and other places to know that it is as close to being the perfect food as food can be.
Built of noodles, beef, vegetables, and broth, the soup slays every major food group in a single slurp. There's a reason it's billed as the national dish of an entire country — a country that is no slouch when it comes to food, by the way.
While pho (pronounced fuh) is anything but new to Clevelanders, it took restaurants like Superior Pho (originally Pho Hoa), #1 Pho, and Saigon to produce near-absolute consumer awareness. Until those places opened, pho was buried on the menus of multi-ethnic restaurants, resigned to live in obscurity.
The newest pho-centric restaurant to open is Pho 99, inside the recently opened Asian Town Center, a 115,000-square-foot mall in Asiatown. Eager to test the waters, many a pho phan — this one included — settled in at the newly opened noodle shop for a bowl. What we found waiting for us was a thin broth that lacked the depth, complexity, and je ne sais quoi we have come to love and expect. Named after the owner's lucky number, Pho 99 was coming up craps.
Happily, a second roll of the dice more than a month later came up a winner. Clearly retooled — or at least dramatically improved — the broth was precisely where it needed to be. Possessing the perfect equilibrium of delicate sweetness, exotic spice, and beefy backbone, the pho had found a friend in me.
Priced at $6.50 for a regular (read: large) and $7.95 for a large (read: redonkulous), the bowls are on par with other shops' stock, filled to the brim with slippery rice noodles, rich broth, scallions, herbs, and the meat of your choosing. Choices range from rare thin-sliced steak and well-done brisket to gelatinous tendon and boiled tripe. Combinations of two or more meats are common.
Of course, it's up to the diner to finish preparing the dish. A large platter of dewy bean sprouts, fragrant herbs, lime wedges, and jalapeño slices, delivered alongside the pho, lets eaters customize their bowl, as do tabletop bottles of fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and sriracha. Some folks add these condiments to the broth, while others use them as dips for the meat.
Wisely, Pho 99 sticks largely to liquid assets. Apart from the 10 or so bowls, the menu offers little more than a half-dozen items. The fried spring rolls, sold by the pair, are every bit as crisp and satisfying as those peddled elsewhere. And the summer rolls, also sold as twins, deliver the usual shrimp-and-salad combo in a pliant rice-paper wrapper. Both appetizers are presented with the usual accompaniments: a sweet and tart sauce for the former and a creamy peanut sauce for the latter.
Atypical for a joint like this is the coconut-braised quail appetizer that I just had to try. Saucy, sticky, and challenging to eat, the bony bird wasn't quite worth the effort.
Built into a newly constructed space, the restaurant is plain, boxy, and bright. There are roughly 40-some seats at about 10 tables, and apart from the pho, there's not all that much to look at.
While well-meaning and attentive, the service is a tad consternating. Water is not provided without special request. Side plates are not automatically delivered with appetizers. Those same plates were removed long before we were done with them. Hot tea is more accurately "tepid" tea.
The best part is that there clearly is room in Cleveland for another reliable pho provider.
As fans know, this is a meal one can enjoy multiple times per week. Judging by my most recent visit to Pho 99, when the shop was three-quarters full on a Monday at noon, folks have already slotted the place into their regular rotations.
The second-best part of visiting Pho 99? Just down the hall is Asia Food Co., a massive Asian grocery with everything an intrepid cook needs to try her hand at making pho at home.
The result might not be restaurant-quality. But home or not, table-top travels are always worth taking.