Since the original Pho Pasteur opened in 1992, Boston and Dorchester have become home to numerous small restaurants whose names begin with “pho,” the beef noodle soup of Hanoi that is now one of the most popular crossover dishes in Vietnamese-American restaurants. I noticed Phò Hóa because it was larger than its counterparts and has a more extensive menu. Only later did I learn that there are more than 100 Phò Hóas in an international chain. As far as I can tell, the restaurant’s core Vietnamese dishes remain authentic and the Chinese ones are quite decent.
PHO BUSINESS The Vietnamese dishes at Phò are authentic, while the Chinese ones are quite decent.
In fact, my favorite appetizer, although listed as an entrée, was the Hong Kong specialty: fried squid with spiced salt ($9.95). The portion wasn’t vast, but the squid was nicely cut, fresh, and perfectly fried, crisp but not oily. It was served Vietnamese style, with quite a lot of salad, which is typically eaten in the same bite with meat or seafood in order to get all the textures and flavors at once.
Another surprise: my favorite soup here was not the excellent pho, but the truly extraordinary “soup bo,” which was served as part of the “beef seven courses” ($29.95 for two). Unlike pho, which is spiked with anise, soup bo is based on a pure beef stock that picks up nuances from black mushrooms, sliced baby-corn ears, fresh peas, cilantro, and even a dropped egg.
Let’s get back to the appetizers though. The lotus rootlet salad ($6.95) here is based not on large chewy lotus roots sliced into disks, but on delicate smaller roots that make a pickled fish-sauce salad, with carrot, red pepper, shredded Asian basil, and a few shrimp chips on the side. The shrimp spring rolls ($3.50) are soft-skinned “summer rolls” with perhaps too much vermicelli among the shrimp, mint leaves, and carrots inside. But the grilled-pork spring rolls ($3.95) work a lot better because the strong flavor of the browned pork pulls the filler ingredients into line. Grilled-pork meatballs ($4.95), is a terrific appetizer of six nicely seasoned ground pork golf balls (on two skewers), with enough salad to wrap the meatballs.
Coming back to the all-important pho; there are 19 kinds, mostly permutations of various mix-ins. I always have phò dãc biét ($3.95/appetizer; $5.25/small; $5.95/large; $6.95/extra-large), which combines several kinds of round, flank, and brisket slices; tripe; softened tendon and such, with the usual spiced beef broth, onions, scallions, cilantro, rice noodles, and mix-ins of lime slice, bean sprouts, and Asian basil. Some people also add table condiments:
Hoisin sauce, Sriracha pepper sauce, salt, pepper, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Despite all of these options, my first measure of good soup is the stock, and Phò Hóa’s has real beefy flavor, touched up with star anise and a bit of caramel. The usual size here translates to “large,” so it’s a big enough meal for almost anyone.
If that seems like too much beef, you can opt for pho ga (same prices), which is chicken soup. Beef soup is considered medicinal in Vietnamese culture, so the chicken soup compensates with a medicinal seasoning of cinnamon and ginger. There’s only chicken meat in a chicken pho, so you don’t have a lot of choices.