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Why does Pho in Northern VA suck?

I've only remember five times where I've had truly great pho in a restaurant. The first was way back in the early 90's when Pho Hot was still in Eden center. Another one was an absolutely amazing Pho Ga in little Saigon in California where they served you freshly steamed sliced chicken on the side with the skin on. The three others were Pho Cong Ly at its old location, Pho Golden Cow, and Pho Factory. Pho Cong Ly that one time served what had to be one of the most authentic northern style pho I've had. Pho Golden Cow was drinkable to the last drop, and just a few weeks ago Pho Factory served me a pho that had such a heavenly spice aroma.

Unfortunately these experiences are like the coming of Halley's comet or the galactic alignment...it happens just once and the rest of the times I eat there the Pho is just terrible and mediocre at best. I just don't understand why this happens really. It seems that all the Pho restaurants around the area do it...they just converge onto a standardized broth that all tastes the same. Watery, loaded with MSG, not much flavor or aroma, just a vessel for tons of condiments and hoisin sauce and sriracha. Clump of noodles at the bottom, tasteless meat.

It might seem petty but I get really bad Pho cravings and I always think back to those times where the pho was amazing, but I get astoundingly disappointed when I go to places with stark raving mad reviews like Pho 75 or Pho Hot (I believe both of those won some awards in the Washingtonian or Northern VA magazine?). Pho Hot is just absolutely nasty, and I remember going to Pho 75 (the famous arlington location) and not only consuming Pho that tasted like reconstituted chicken powder but waiting in line for half an hour and being seated in an environment that felt more like a cafeteria with angry waiters. Pho Xe Lua also seems to have legendary status among the old timers in the vietnamese community. Yet I remember the last time my grandmother took us there, the pho ga was so salty, dark brown, and the chicken was shriveled and gristly. Ugh.

What is the deal? Does good Pho no longer exist in this area? Does no one give a crap about this amazing dish anymore?

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  1. I had okay pho at Pho Bistro in Centreville. It may suck to you but it was better than I find in Fla

    1. When I came back from Vietnam in 1998 and again in 2002, the Pho I got at Pho 75 on Wilson was as good as the best Pho I enjoyed in Saigon, Hue and Hanoi. I went to sidewalk vendors and I went to places like Pho Pasteur and the Pho in Vietnam is heavenly. And Pho 75 was as good as the best. And since 2004 it has been traveling down to mediocrity. I have had a good bowl at Pho 54 and at Pho Golden Cow, and then go back to them later and have a bowl that is just bland personified, if that is possible.
      I think it comes down to the fact that it takes a lot of work to make great Pho, and the owners can get nearly as many diners with mediocre Pho as the can with great Pho. When I do get really good Pho here it tends to be just before the lunch rush, not during or after.

      8 Replies
      1. re: Ziv

        "When I do get really good Pho here it tends to be just before the lunch rush, not during or after."

        I've heard many people say this. Would this be around 10-11 am? I wonder why this is...is it because the pho is fresh? I always wondered what they do to the old leftover broth and when they make new broth. Or is it one of those things where they just have a continually simmering stock and just continue to add things to it, like a master stock?

        1. re: takadi

          Takadi, I don't know why, but when I go around 11:30 I tend to get good or very good Pho at Pho 75 and Pho Golden Cow. I am a Tai Nam Gan fan, and I always thought that it took hours for the Pho to be prepared correctly so that it tastes right and that maybe it can get adulterated or dumbed down somehow during the lunch rush. I don't know why, but my good bowls have been just before lunch time. I have never tried Pho Ga so I can't say anything about that version. I wish I was an expert on Vietnamese Pho, but I am just a person that loves it when it is done right.

          1. re: Ziv

            Maybe on busy days, they add water to stretch out the broth through the lunch period?

            There's the old country song: "Put more water in the soup, Ma, 'cause company's a'comin'"

            1. re: MikeR

              The other day for kicks I went to Pho Hot again and my experience reminded me of this post. It was much better than what I've had in the past, not amazing or the best, but tasty. Then I remembered all those other times I've went were with large parties and I could just imagine them saying "bring out the water".

            2. re: Ziv

              A few years ago there was a lot of speculation, especially on Pho 75, to stretching the broth and so that at the end of a rush was the worst time to go. IMO Pho 75 went downhill for a while, but I did a "Pho-off" about 18 months ago in the Herndon/Reston/Sterling area. Pho 75 had improved.

              To the OP, two things:

              You specify Northern style Pho. The only place I know that does Northern style is Nam Viet, and if you go there, I wouldn't get the pho anyway. But you may want to try it.

              My personal fave is Pho Reston 75, which is not Pho 75 in Herndon. There used to be a place near where Tortilla Factory was that was great. It's changed hands a lot recently and I think any new venture is doomed to fail. Death spiral central.

                1. re: takadi

                  I'm sure both are nearly the same, but I usually refer to the Clarendon location.

          2. re: Ziv

            That is sad to hear. I lived in the DC area back in the late nineties early 2000's and I was just about to post that Pho 75 was my go to and the best i've had in the states.

          3. May it be that the sensitivity of any individual's taste buds (and other senses) vary from day to day? I've certainly had the experience that the same dish impresses me differently from time to time depending upon what I've eaten recently, how I react to the environment at any given time, who I'm with, etc.??

            Alternatively, you can say that truly sublime experiences are difficult to replicate.

            I've had inexplicably disappointing meals, same place, same dish, often in my life. I've even had genuinely bad Indian food in DC. But every re-visit (but never to that one Idian restaurant) is its own experience.

            1. Are you specifically talking about pho ga? I confess that in 30 years of eating pho pretty regularly, I've never had chicken broth. In this area, I've had good and less good pho but I wouldn't say it all sucks. I like Golden Cow, for instance. I've had pho all over LA and orange counties and while I like the greater varieties of additions (can't we have culantro here?), I don't think it is unformly far superior to the DC area.

              5 Replies
              1. re: tcamp

                Golden cow used to be my regular spot but I've just had not too great pho way too many times for it to be a coincidence. I believe the last time I went the broth had a slightly soured taste to it and it was lukewarm. Perhaps like Ziv said, good pho is time sensitive, so perhaps I'm just going to these places at bad times.

                1. re: takadi

                  I haven't had that experience but I am usually there at noon time-ish when there is alot of soup being served. What's your favorite pho at the moment? The closer to Alexandria, the better.

                  1. re: tcamp

                    At the moment I like Pho Factory which is right off of Beauregard st, but lately it's only been average. It was the first time I went there, which was around 6 on a thursday that it was amazing, but since then I haven't been able to have a repeat experience. However their service is bar none the best and it is the cleanest pho restaurant out there.

                    1. re: takadi

                      Thanks, I'll do some research.

                2. re: tcamp

                  I never order pho ga, either. And in general, I don't notice that pho here is particularly inferior to California or Texas (Houston-Dallas-Austin) pho. Had so-so and good, but thankfully never bad. I do feel that the expansive menu and specialty dish Vietnamese restaurants are less in quantity, and barring a few good places, DC area VN food is inferior to what you get in the major VN populated centers in TX and CA. But it's not the pho that's the problem. The pho is actually the best thing that's most widely available here.

                3. It's pretty labor intensive-if you don't like what you can get commercially, you should try to make it at home. I only want pho occasionally, our favorite is Le Bledo, followed by Viet House & 5-10 Foodmart. Deciding factor is the freshness of the sprouts, herbs, & depth of the broth...

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: thistle5

                    I LOVE Le Bledo. The problem is that I have never tried their pho. I've tried everything else but they always seem to run out of pho when I get there. They are probably the only place I know that legitimately makes everything from scratch down to the bone broth. That is definitely my mission to try their pho.

                    I have been trying on and off again for the last few years to make good pho at home and have been recently getting back into it. It has been difficult to say the least. I have a thread about it on Egullet. The thing about Pho is that it is difficult to experiment with because it takes such a long time to make and so much investment

                    1. re: takadi

                      You should definitely try to make it to Le Bledo for their pho- my son is a meat & potatoes teenager, but he loves Le Bledo's pho. He dragged a friend over on Tuesday, & his biggest complaint was that there was too much tripe in the bowl-I prefer the pho ga, no tripe in the soup...

                      1. re: thistle5

                        Wow...Le Bledo did not disappoint...

                      2. re: takadi

                        Perhaps they run out because they make as much as they think they need and don't try to stretch it if it's a busy day.

                        I assume that the broth has to cook for a significant length of time. It's not like steak where they can always take another one out of the refrigerator and put it on the grill.