CHOOSE WISELY There are many options at Pho Hanoi.
Vietnamese cuisine very friendly to saucy experimentation. The basic ingredients tend toward the light, clear, and crisp in flavor and texture, and make a perfect canvas on which to tinker with elements of heat, sourness, and sweetness. At Pho Hanoi, every table has five or six bottles of various sauces, which you can mix and match to your taste.
Those bottles, a variety of browns and reds (with a DIY masking-tape label on the fish sauce), are bunched on one end of a classic faux-wood Formica table. Those tables, along with the simple wood chairs and wainscoting, the quaint framed prints on the wall, and the long narrow room make Pho Hanoi look and feel like many other Vietnamese restaurants. There is nothing wrong with that. It is soothingly familiar, and mentally prepares you for your pho.
And you better get prepared — your pho comes quickly. This soup, served in a huge bowl, is just as familiar as the décor, and as phoes go it's a good one. The beef broth has a good depth and richness, without any heaviness or too much salt. A squeeze of lime accentuates the bright notes of ginger and scallion. From there you can work the sauces as you wish. The classic bright red Vietnamese hot sauce is all pepper-heat, and gives the broth a thin, sharp flavor. A darker red sauce gives the same heat, but with a sweeter, thicker base of tomato. The hoisin adds both sweetness and rich umami. We ordered our pho with thin slices of tender brisket. Each bowl is full of incredibly tender rice noodles, which soaks up the broth and catches up the sauces.
We were slightly less impressed with the pho made with chicken broth. It was not the broth that was the problem, but the chicken meat — which was a little tougher and less flavorful than the beef. But the opposite was the case with the two other chicken dishes — served over rice or a bowl of rice noodles. This chicken had been grilled with spices that seemed to mix lemongrass and pepper. This gives the tender meat a great-looking yellow-red color, touched by dark marks from the grill. We preferred the noodle version, since it allowed you to mix in crunchy lettuce and bean sprouts, and the bowl really let things soak in the fish sauce you are encouraged to add. A beef version of the same dish was just as good. The beef has a subtly sweet, gingery quality. It was so tender it was soft, with a bit of charred flavor here and there. It was great with a bit of the bright red hot sauce.
Pho Hanoi has a long menu (dishes number from 1 to 67). Sampling around is likely to find you some unexpected favorites. A pork meatball appetizer actually was pinkish, fatty, flat nuggets of juicy grilled pork. A salad with pork and shrimp was carroty-sweet and wet with a fishy sauce. Amid the crunchy iceberg were many slices of pale pork, and big, bright-orange, tender shrimp. Fried spring rolls were filled with vermicelli and bits of dark tender mushroom.