Review: Pho Hoa

Another worthy take on Vietnamese beef and noodle soup
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  March 12, 2012
2.0 2.0 Stars

HIT THE POT Besides its 17 versions of pho, Pho Hoa offers rice and vermicelli plates, and a deeply satisfying "house special rice clay pot with seafood."
For a long time, I mispronounced the name of "pho," the amazing Vietnamese noodle broth, and thus coined the phrase "Pho Row" for the first group of Vietnamese restaurants in Dorchester. Then I learned that the word may be a borrowing from the French pot-au-feu, and thus should be pronounced "fuh." Now, a native speaker has come forward with the correct version in three regional accents, which sounds to me about halfway between "fuh" and "fah." In the slowest regional Vietnamese accent — which is still shorter than the heavy Boston accent "far" — it might be almost "fuah."

The partners behind Pho Hoa had an earlier Dorchester spot, and still operate a Chinatown location (which I reviewed) and another place in Quincy, so this is either Pho Hoa III or IV, or maybe CXV (it is part of an international franchise). There is quite a lot on the menu besides the eponymous soup, and no one should miss the roasted quail appetizer ($7.95). I'm not going to tell you that quail tastes like chicken, because chicken has become almost tasteless, and when quail did taste like chicken, it was even more so. The quail at Pho Hoa is not quite so tasty as the one at Catalyst, but it's close, and the platter is a little more than half the price, with twice as much quail.

The chicken skewers ($4.50 for three), despite a lemongrass marinade, have neither the basic flavor nor the great peanut dip of the Thai or Malaysian satay — a near negative. The fried egg roll, cha gio ($2.95), which can be the crispest in the universe, was here rather over-wrapped and stodgy.

On to pho, here available in 17 permutations but simply priced by size: appetizer or child size ($4.50), small ($6.50), large (their "regular," $7.25), and extra large ($7.95). I have never ordered the extra large, because some things are better imagined. I always have the pho dac biet combination, because it has all the thin cuts of beef and tripe, as well as flat rice noodles, cilantro, scallions, bean sprouts, slices of lime and Asian basil, and a deadly little bird-chili pepper that is strictly for initiates. The broth here, while good, doesn't have the snap of star anise nor the caramel richness of the original Pho Pasteur or Pho Pascal, in Chinatown.

Many lovers of Vietnamese food don't go for the pho, but fill up on the inexpensive rice and vermicelli plates. Our shrimp-and-pork vermicelli plate ($7.95) was a good illustration of why, as the strips of barbecued pork were especially addictive and savory, and trimmings of minted salad, fried peanuts, and caramelized scallions put a lot of flavors on these platters. Visual presentation is important in this culinary culture, and almost all our dishes had carved vegetables, slightly pickled little salads, greens, and edible hibiscus flowers to set off the savory food.

We figured "house special rice clay pot with seafood" ($10.95) would be a Chinese-style hot pot. It wasn't. It was served in an iron pot like a cioppino, with lots of vegetables, fragrant rice on the side, and a mix of squid, mild fish loaf, shrimp, and phony crab that was deeply satisfying. I also highly recommend watercress stir-fried with garlic ($6.95), which had quite a lot of both elements.

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