Finding good ethnic food in the City is like an urban hunting ritual, often tempting food fiends into dark alleys, back rooms, and sketchy bodegas in pursuit of "the authentic." I am grateful for the street stands and scrungy delis and random food windows I've been known to frequent, along with the usually low price point that will help us all get through this crap economy.
But the other side of the coin is many of these places are using cheap ingredients that I really don't want to know the provenance of. It's a hard thing to reconcile: I love street food and ethnic cheap eats, but the sub-par and most likely not very natural or sustainable or organic ingredients (especially the proteins) can pose a conundrum to someone trying to eat consciously. I don't like having to throw my philosophy out the window about how animals should be raised or what I want to put into my body as soon as I walk up to a taco truck and say, "Dos tacos di lengua, por favor." Because you can't really say, "Si, con salsa picante. But please hold the antibiotics."
I'm pleased to see places like Papalote and Out the Door and now Nopalito that are committed to using quality ingredients without sacrificing authenticity, because some places don't "get it"--I don't necessarily want "healthy" street food, just well-made street food that still rings in at a decent price.
~POT DE PHỜ~, the Vietnamese restaurant that opened about a year ago in the former Straits Café and Spanish Fly Wine & Tapas Bar location in the Inner Richmond is another place trying to balance the quality and authenticity equation.
I was curious and tried Pot de Phờ about a month after it opened back in the beginning of 2008, but wasn't that enchanted with it, so I didn't write it up on tablehopper. I was recently invited to try it, and figured what the heck, I might as well go check it out again. I found things had greatly improved, and am already looking forward to returning.
Executive chef Khai Duong is also behind Ana Mandara--this is his casual offshoot. The colonial-meets-CB2 décor is a far cry from the usual florescent lights and old fading beers posters of most phờ spots. Here you'll find walls painted with a bamboo pattern, birdcages hanging from the ceiling, dark wood tables, bright green walls, leather chairs, and a glass case in the back with a display of some ingredients that go into making phờ (no, you won't find any small stuffed dogs, har). I was almost happy to see some random holiday lights in the back--keepin' it real in March, yo. There's also a vintage phờ cart in the back made of teak--we need some of these roaming the City.
So, first things first: do you know how to say phờ? Just in case you don't, it's pronounced fuh. See, now you are so pro because you don't call it pho. And here's a little more background for you: Pot de Phờ's website says the French colonists of the 1880s are responsible for the existence of phờ in Vietnam, inspired by the classic French boiled dish of "pot au feu," hence the restaurant's clever name.
The beef phờ version here features a broth made with all-natural Masami Farms Wagyu/American Kobe-style beef bones and alkalinized water (chef Khai found an ionizing and filtering machine in Japan); the broth simmers for at least ten hours, and is rich and deep with the flavors of herbs and spices, and a definite note of star anise. You can choose from rare steak to well-done steak, plus well-done shank. While I missed some of the more outré phờ options, like beef balls and tendon and tripe, the version with the tender rare beef (Phờ Bò Tái) was enough to keep me coming back just for that. They are all $8.75 for a medium bowl, or $10 for a large.
Yeah, a large bowl of combo beef phờ at most down-and-dirty phờ places around town is $5 or $6, and can be damned delicious, but do I want to bring a date there? Uh, no. And do I want to trace the lineage of the rare beef in my bowl there? Er, maybe not.
A few unique things about the phờ service here: it comes with lemon, not lime; bean spouts come already in the bowl and not alongside it; the handmade flat rice noodles are a bit thicker than what some places use around town; side accoutrements include onion that's lightly pickled, plus basil leaves and saw leaf. I also noted the broth had less globules of fat in it than I'm used to seeing (my body keeps reminding me this is a good thing, but the brain disagrees).
Squirt bottles of house-made hoisin and sriracha came with a little dish to put them in--I just learned you're supposed to dip the meats and any vegetables from your phờ into the sauce, instead of putting the sauces in the broth. To be honest, I didn't even want to add a single drop of anything to the already-complex broth here--it was such a pleasure to taste on its own.
On my first visit, I had the chicken phờ made with organic and free-range chicken, quite delicious. But the beef version is the one I really adored. Vegetarians and vegans will be happy to know there is a vegan variation with tofu and mushrooms, and no MSG, meow.
There's much more than phờ here. The menu of starters has really expanded, with dishes like Bánh Khoai Môn ($5.50), minced duck with taro and water chestnuts that unexpectedly arrived like hot little breaded lollipops on sticks. Yeah, those went fast. The Chả Giò Tôm Thịt ($6.25), the classic dish of crispy Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with vermicelli, pork, and shrimp were well executed, and not greasy. You wrap up the hot roll in the little leaves of fresh lettuce with some mint, and then dip it all into the accompanying nuoc cham, the traditional tangy-sweet dipping sauce with a bit of chili in it.
A standout to me was the green papaya salad (Gỏi Đu Đủ Tôm Thịt, $6.75)--it had sliced prawns that were plump and sweet. There was also notable heat to it, more than I've ever had in this kind of salad. Chef Khai said the heat is indicative of where he grew up (the middle of Vietnam). It really came together, popping with flavor, texture, and color.
I also tried the Bún Chả Ha Nội ($12.50), a bento box with skewers of BBQ pork and rice noodles that you wrap up in lettuce and dunk away into the nuoc cham. The pork was so tender, a far cry from the typically leathery morsels I have encountered elsewhere.
There are plenty of options for vegetarians here, and this is exactly the kind of spot where I'd bring someone who wanted to try Vietnamese food for the first time--the place is not only stylish, but also quite clean. Now that I got some of the menu basics out of the way, I'm already plotting my next culinary moves: shrimp paste on sugarcane (a favorite dish of mine), and the meatballs.
One drawback is the service--both times I found the staff to be really nice, but you can languish at the table waiting for your plates to be cleared, to order dessert, or get your check. If you have somewhere to be, something you want, or are ready to go, don't depend on service to be intuitive.
I saw a bit of take-out business, so I made a mental note on that. I also think it's ideal for a lunch meeting (the space is very tranquil), a first date (although I wouldn't necessarily want to slurp noodles on a first date--I'd stick with easier items to eat and share), and I can imagine this would be a good kid-friendly spot, once you figured out if your kids liked the BBQ pork and crispy rolls.
While Turtle Tower on Larkin is one of my Vietnamese favorites for phờ (and bless the chef there who actually uses free-range chicken and makes those divine noodles), I'm happy to have the option of Pot de Phờ in rotation, which, how handy, is open past 7:30pm.
Pot de Phờ
3300 Geary Blvd.
Cross: Parker Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94118