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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.

                      1. re: shake N baik

                        I've had their pho a very very long time ago and I don't remember too much about it other than that interesting sauce and that their portions were huge. The last few times I went there was actually for their "dry" style pho with a soy sauce and pork and veggies. Chocked full of MSG but delicious.

                        1. re: takadi

                          What is "dry" style pho?

                          "Chock full of MSG" AND delicious. Not "but." Those words do not mean the same thing. :D

                          1. re: KWagle

                            You mean hu tieu xao or pho/hu tieu ap chao?

                      2. Try Pho 98 in Chantilly. But, I cannot vouch for the chicken pho, at this or any place else. Been eating pho for over 20 years, and never ordered chicken.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Bob W

                          Nah my post wasn't referring to pho ga specifically. I just remembered a particular pho ga in little saigon that was pretty much one of the best pho I've ever eaten

                        2. I can't really recommend a super authentic pho place since it's not really my favorite type of soup, but I can respond to the plethora of mediocre pho. I get the feeling pho is approaching the level of sushi in ubiquity; people try it and like it and want more. The demand for sushi chefs can't be met, so anybody with a knife and access to raw fish thinks they're a sushi chef. Hence the limitless variety of lousy sushi eateries. That said, there's a place near me called 5 Ten Food Mart that's run by a nice Vietnamese guy who does a decent rich broth and goes pretty easy on the cilantro, which I like. It helps that for $7.50, you can basically kill yourself with pho, the guy's that generous. Because of the neighborhood Latino population, he also sells tacos and burritos.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: monkeyrotica

                            There does seem to be a lot of pho places popping up. Most pho's I get is pretty decent but cannot say it is fantastic. I still look for places where they have a fairly high rate of turn over.
                            pho 75 and golden cow are still my go to places but I do think pho 75 has changed in the past 10 years. Perhaps it is my memory but I think the stock seems less rich and far less meat is in the bowl.

                            Never the less, I still go. Still get pho cravings....

                          2. Pho Hong Ahn in the Springfield Plaza is excellent. I always get the Brisket. it is reasonable ($8.50 or so for a large) and the meat is ALWAYS gristle free and has the fat removed. you get lots of basil & other veggies even if you carry out.

                            1. I went to 5-ten mart today and the pho was REALLY good. The owner was super friendly too, and he went around introducing himself to everybody, probably the coolest guy ever. PLUS they have pupusas, probably my second most favorite thing ever next to pho. The owner also suggested I try to the smoothies next time. I think I love this place. I just wish it wasn't so far from where I live, and I wish I heard of it sooner...the place is like NOVA's best kept secret

                              16 Replies
                              1. re: takadi

                                Isn't that guy the best? Really goes out of his way to make customers feel welcome.

                                1. re: takadi

                                  On Richmond Hwy south of Old Mt. Vernon Road? Huh.

                                  1. re: takadi

                                    I thought it was pretty darn good Pho outside of Falls Church - I haven't had the heart to try the Tacos yet tho....

                                    1. re: tommyskitchen

                                      The tacos at 5 Ten Food Mart are a mixed bag. If you're serious about your tacos, you'd be eating them at La Mexicana Bakery & Tacqueria or Tacos El Costalilla or Ricos Tacos Moya up the street. About the best you could say about the 5 Ten tacos is that they're cheap and filling. They're basically there for the same reason the American breakfast sandwiches are on the menu; they're for the folks who don't care for pho.

                                      1. re: monkeyrotica

                                        Rats. I tried to find Chow reports on 5-Ten tonight so I could go but searched for 5-10 and nothing came up. Ended up with three tacos from la Mexicana that were ok at best. Cabrito, lengua and barbacoa were less than stellar. Wish I could have tried 5 Ten instead. Poor planning on my part.

                                    2. re: takadi

                                      I've been consulting at the school next to 5-ten and finally went there for lunch.I was a little concerned about the ethnic-culinary smorgasbord on the signage.
                                      However, after receiving my pho, I'm Verrry happy.
                                      It's not the best, but it IS pretty darn good.

                                      1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                        If you're into Korean food, Kimchi House just south of 5-Ten is pretty good. Again, not the best, but reasonably priced and the ladies use vegetables that they grow in their garden.

                                        http://mountvernon.patch.com/listings...

                                        1. re: monkeyrotica

                                          I've tried both the Korean and the Thai lunch buffet that is only a little further down the road.
                                          Both very mom&pop-- solid, and since what I miss of Seoul is home cooked, a pretty good choice!
                                          I'm waiting for "spring" [will it ever get here? As I type it is snowing in Woodbridge] so I can see if they make the cold summer buckwheat noodle soy-cream broth soup with julienned cucumbers and sesame seeds sprinkled over the top.

                                          1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                            Any reason to believe they make kongguksu? Or is that just wishful thinking?

                                            1. re: Steve

                                              Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh. That's the name!!

                                              I genuinely believe that if you went on a (summer) Tuesday for lunch and asked if they could make it for you for Thursday's lunch and you went back, they would make it... although possibly not That Thursday.

                                              Relationships. They key to the "secret menu" anywhere.

                                              1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                                I fully believe that, too, though my only caveat is that recipes I have seen for kongguksu seem surprisingly complicated.

                                              2. re: Steve

                                                I've seen kongguksu on the menu at Kang Chon in Springfield, but I've never tried it.

                                                1. re: monkeyrotica

                                                  Wow, thanks for that info! I will give them a shout when things get a touch warmer outside. I haven't seen it on an Annandale menu. A wonderful dish if done well.

                                                  More ubiquitous is kalguksu, which are 'knife cut noodles,' a hot, mild soup often served with clams.

                                        2. re: takadi

                                          Just tried the 5 Ten Food Mart today for pho. Very good!

                                          I think there are 4 types of pho, medium/rare beef, well-done beef, chicken, and meatballs. I have the well-done beef. I will happily return. It's very casual, you order at the counter and they bring the food out to you. And yes, the staff there are very nice as others have mentioned.

                                        3. Which Golden Cow location are you referring to? I agree with the Pho 75 comment. It's been mediocre for the last few years. I've been to the Wilson Blvd one, Herndon, Rt 50, and eventually stopped. The Golden Cow on Rt 50 has had too many inconsistencies and I've stopped going there, too. Now, I'm down to the Golden Cow in Bailey's Crossroads. I'm still happy with it. I tried Pho 50 a couple of days ago and wasn't impressed. I'll have to note the time of day next time I go to a pho place. The best pho is still the one my mom makes, but she doesn't make it often enough.

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: souvac

                                            I'm glad you brought up the difference between the two Golden Cows. I was just about to task if anyone had a sense of whether one was consistently better than the other. They're both about the same distance from my home, but I've been going to the Bailey's Crossroads one pretty much exclusively for the past few years because the traffic is a little lighter and parking is easier.

                                            Yesterday was a perfect pho-for-lunch day and I went to Pho 50 for a chance since I was heading in that direction for another errand. This thread has made be more aware of what the broth tastes like, and I realized that mostly I was tasting on this visit was the squeeze of lime juice and couple of jalapeno slices that I added to it (because I thought it needed some help).

                                            Hopefully I'll be more enthusiastic about the Bailey's Golden Cow next time I'm heading in that direction.

                                            1. re: souvac

                                              There are two golden cows 0_0?

                                              I go to the one on 50 and graham. Is everyone referring to that one? Perhaps I've been going to the wrong one this entire time....it used to be really really good, and it has just plummeted in quality in the last half year. Maybe they brought their old chef to the other location?

                                              Btw can you ask your mom for her recipe ;)

                                              1. re: takadi

                                                The one on Rt. 50 at Graham Road was the original one.

                                                The other one is on Jefferson Street off Rt. 7, near Skyline Towers. In the strip mall that has Edy's Chicken at the Rt. 7 end and a Bolivian sports bar (use to be a pretty decent Chinese restaurant) at the other end.

                                                The Rt. 50 one got a lot of good reviews here when it first opened, but nobody's said much about it (at least not specifically that one) recently.

                                                I'm not sure how much a chef has to do with making good pho, I expect that there are indeed variations in the ingredients and proportions, but the most significant difference, I suspect, is how much water goes into the pot with the specified mix of stock flavorings. Or (he says, with a bit of sarcasm) how much water is added when it looks like the amount of stock prepared for the day isn't going to last through lunch.

                                                1. re: takadi

                                                  Takadi, I should really shadow my mom when she makes it. It's impossible to ask her to write things down as Asian mothers don't measure when they cook. Unfortunately, if she's going to do Pho Saturday or Pho Sunday, she starts the broth around 8AM to have the broth done by noon. I have no desires to wake up early and drive over to her house at that hour. Lol. I will need to one day, though. You should definitely give the Bailey's Golden Cow a try. It is more consistent and a better broth than the Rt 50 one.

                                                  1. re: souvac

                                                    Haha it was a tongue in cheek request but then again, I wouldn't mind a couple tips thrown my way. I've been experimenting with my own pho recipe for the last year, and though it's getting better it's not that great....

                                                    I went with some friends to the Bailey's Golden Cow and although I do agree they made better pho than the route 50 Golden Cow, I wasn't terribly impressed with the flavor of the broth. It was a little lacking in seasoning and spice aroma. It wasn't terrible though, just average for me...it tasted alot like the pho at Pho 50.

                                              2. It's not in NOVA, but have you tried Mekong Delta in Baltimore? Their broth is the best I've had between Philly, Bmore and NOVA. I'm no expert, but would be curious to hear your thoughts.

                                                1. It depends on WHEN you to the Pho place. Remember, if the pho stock had been on the burner too long then it became salty and not very good. Normally, the pho place prepares their broth and meat ahead in the morning. By the late afternoon, it became too salty. Come for an early lunch, before noon. On the weekends, come around noon and before 2pm.

                                                  The other thing I noticed is that a NEW pho place will try to cook well to attract customers. As they become more well known and established, they're care little less thus not as good as when the place first started out.

                                                  Eden Center is always OVERRATED and too crowded. People drive like maniacs and park on the curbs blocking the lane. The parking spaces are too tight and people park very carelessly.

                                                  My current pho place is Super Pho in Chantilly, VA. It's on Centreville road.

                                                  1. I was out that way and decided to try Pho Phactory phor lunch today. I've always thought that pho was pretty much the same wherever I got it, but this was a little different, and in a good way. The broth was more flavorful than what I usually have, and it kept getting better as I got near the end. That could be that there was more meat in the soup than what I usually have at Golden Cow and so there's more of it to add to the flavor of the broth.

                                                    They have only one size bowl which is pretty large, and at $8.75, pushes lunch over $10, so it'll be on my monthly rotation, not my weekly rotation. But I'm glad I found a different pho that tasted better than the usual pho.

                                                    1. Pho Golden Cow on Rt. 50 and Pho Golden Cow Bailey's X Roads are owned by different individuals. I believe at one time they were both co-owned by the same individuals, but there was a falling out. I enjoyed a delicious bowl of pho (pre lunch rush) on a weekday at the Golden Pho Bailey's X Roads.

                                                      1. The only place to get pho in DMV is Pho 75 on Arlington Blvd in Falls Church. The other places even in the same chain are only wannabes. No one else makes better pho. No one. I am Vietnamese and a pho connoiseur and have spent years chasing pho. I have never found a bowl in the WORLD that compares. Period.

                                                        7 Replies
                                                        1. re: mimitom

                                                          Gotta agree here. The pho in Vietnam is pretty uninspired by comparison.

                                                          1. re: monkeyrotica

                                                            God I thought it was just me. I went to Vietnam last year and I found the Pho there, *especially* in Hanoi, to be just boring, some even nasty. Now that I think about it, food in Hanoi, hell just Hanoi in general, has gotten worse since I was there in 2006. Went to the famous Cha Ca place (btw, tons of clones of popped up since), and boy have they gotten bad. Hardly any dill and oil, heated over a weak flame instead of the charcoal they used before. I asked for ca cuong and they looked at me like I was insane.

                                                            1. re: takadi

                                                              I've never been, but since Hanoi is in the North would that be what makes it seem "boring"? Just curious. The South's style is what Americans are mostly used to, with the accoutrements and all.

                                                              http://www.sfgate.com/recipes/article...

                                                              1. re: Dennis S

                                                                Northern style tends to be "plain" or more pure depending on your choice of words, but what I'm describing is just lack of flavor. Northern style pho is supposed to be very intense as opposed to the southern style which is a little more "refined" tasting and sweeter. The Pho I had in Hanoi was just disappointing...most of them had great noodles but the broth was just bland and had no spice aroma. Some places used lots of ginger, which was overpowering. They have also developed a weird habit of putting chinese donuts (Youtiao or Chao Quay) in their pho. These were such a far cry from the Pho I had 6 years ago...the best one being from a lady who came at 5 am with two huge stock pots on a cart and left at 6 am when it was all gone. The taste was so strong yet the broth was so light and fresh.

                                                                The worst Pho I had in Vietnam though was Pho 24, a popular chain in the south. This place was packed. I think Vietnam is on an "America" craze and the fast food aspect was what attracted them to this place. I definitely hope it wasn't the flavor.

                                                          2. re: mimitom

                                                            Are you talking about the Pho 75 in Loehmans? I found that place to be very hit or miss...especially when they are busy, it is so blatantly obvious that they sometimes water down the broth, sometimes with such an arrogance that it really does taste like MSG flavored water. On the good days, they are good, not amazing, but decent enough. It definitely does not compare to the Pho at Le Bledo

                                                            1. re: takadi

                                                              Yeah that's the one. Really? I have rarely had a bad experience there, I go every Sunday I am in town. They are the only place I know that does not use MSG. Sorry you haven't had a good experience but I really love it. I will drive across town for it if I'm having a fixing. Give it another shot!

                                                              1. re: mimitom

                                                                I went a few months ago and they were pretty good, definitely better than most commercial chains. However I remember the many times going there before a few years ago and it being so bland. I mean the flavor was there, and the meat and noodles were amazing, but it was just so watered down, and there was sooo much msg. I suspect they might have improved since then, so maybe you're right. I'll have to give it another shot one day.

                                                                Also, almost every single pho place uses MSG, that umami taste is just essential to pho. It's a quick and cheap way to get that flavor than using the traditional sa sung or dried shrimp. I am almost 90 percent sure they use MSG at Pho 75. I only know of one pho place ever that doesn't use MSG, and that's Pho Kimmy in Westminster CA. You can definitely tell the difference, as it doesn't have that "essence".