If you happen to go to 43rd Express (also known as Pho 43 Express) for lunch, the first thing you'll notice is how difficult it is to get a table. The dining room at this West Phoenix mom-and-pop Vietnamese eatery, sparsely decorated with run-of-the-mill landscape art and a few overgrown houseplants, holds only about a dozen Formica-topped tables, most of which are packed by noon.
The second thing you'll probably notice is dessert. The restaurant's beautiful, pastel-colored macaron ice cream sandwiches are hugely popular carry-out items, and at the height of the lunch rush, the oversize treats fly out of the freezer. The first time I laid eyes on the macaron ice cream sandwiches at 43rd Express, several were being indelicately devoured by a trio of hard-hatted construction workers in the restaurant's parking lot. The way the men relished every bite, the bright pink macarons might have been triple-decker burgers, or steak.
But first, there's pho.
Before macarons found their way onto the menu, 43rd Express was known for its pho, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup that has earned a cult following around the world. Just a decade ago, tracking down a memorable bowl of pho was a quixotic undertaking in some parts of the Valley. Back then, options for traditional Vietnamese fare were limited to a handful of restaurants around Central Phoenix. Today, thanks to a maturing Valley food scene and a small but significant swell in Arizona's Vietnamese population, you can sit down to a simmering, fragrant bowl of pho in almost every corner of the city.
But as more Vietnamese noodle shops pop up around town, there's something to be said about finding the one place in town you can always count on to deliver an extraordinary bowl of pho (pronounced "fuh," with a slight upward inflection near the end, if you're a stickler for pronunciation). I'm talking about pho dac biet, or the house special pho, at 43rd Express, which the restaurant has been dishing out since 1993. There are about 20 variations of pho on the menu, but the number one spot still belongs to the dac biet, which comes with slices of brisket, tendon, and tripe floating atop rice noodles submerged in a meaty broth. The magic of the dish, the thing that keeps the tables packed at lunchtime, is in the broth. Clear and fragrant with a distinctively savory depth, this is the pho you long for on rainy days.
Before diving into an extra-large bowl of pho, it's worth starting your meal with an order of the goi cuon. The Vietnamese spring rolls, generously stuffed with shrimp and shredded pork, were hefty, bright, and brilliantly fresh on a recent visit. Also delectable: the banh xeo, a rice paper crepe shaded yellow by turmeric and stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp, and shredded pork. Although slightly bitter and charred at the edges during my recent lunch, the crepe — the largest Vietnamese crepe I've spotted around town — was hot, crunchy, and succulent. The crepe, tasty enough on its own, became obscenely good when dipped into the nuoc cham, the traditional sweet, garlicky fish sauce that is paired with many Vietnamese dishes.
If you're craving soup but have grown tired of pho, the best alternative is the bun bo hue, a fiery noodle soup dish that is traditionally thickened with pig's blood. Here, the cloudy orange hue of the broth is derived from fresh chiles and shrimp paste. Gutsy, earthy, and unabashedly spicy, the soup scorched my palate with each spoonful. But, under all that heat, a base of savory, spicy, and pungent undertones melded and bloomed into a complex, bold, and beautifully balanced dish. The soup, spiked with hunks of juicy beef and a meaty pork leg, was intensely satisfying.
For the spice-averse, rice platters like com bi cha thit nuong offer a sense of familiarity but will surprise you now and then with contrasting textures and deep, savory flavors. This dish, a play on pork done three ways, came topped with bubbling bits of sweet and tangy grilled pork, complemented with a handful of savory shredded pork skin, known as bi. The crowning touch? Two slices of cha trung, steamed egg and pork meatloaf, gingerly laid atop the heap of well-cooked, slightly sweet rice. It was hard to decide which element was more flavorful — the richly flavored shredded pork skin, or the two meaty, spongy slices of cha trung. In the end, the cha trung, steamed to perfection and as savory as sausage, will leave you craving another slice.
43rd Express is owned and managed by Michael Nguyen, whose mother started the restaurant in the early 1990s. On any given day, you'll find a handful of the Nguyen siblings and grandchildren manning the register and assembling the popular macaron ice cream sandwiches by the shop freezer. Speaking of the macarons, many diners travel to the restaurant expressly for these homemade desserts, and the trip is worth it. The sandwiches, available in a mix-and-match selection of cookie and ice cream flavors, feature Eastern ingredients like taro, Thai tea, and panang along with more American flavors like red velvet. The sandwiches are assembled to order; I requested a taro-flavored macaron with pandan ice cream and watched as my server cemented a thick slab of the pistachio-colored ice cream between two lavender cookies. You might think that at least one element of this dessert would go awry, but it was a near-perfect confection: The cookie texture was chewy and nutty, and it paired dreamily with the coconut-inflected flavor of the pandan ice cream. It should be noted that the restaurant also sells traditional macaron cookies, available only on the weekends.
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There are some drawbacks to dining at 43rd Express. During the weekday lunch rush, the restaurant's cramped parking lot becomes a labyrinth of traffic snarls and illegal park jobs. Service is minimal, and like many fine mom-and-pop joints, the restaurant invariably will be closed on the day you drive across town to eat there. (Note: The restaurant is regularly closed on Tuesdays.) But perhaps its biggest transgression is this: The macaron ice cream sandwiches tend to sell out early, and you may not get the flavor you want if you arrive after 2 p.m.
You've been warned.
2844 North 43rd Avenue
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Monday
Ban xeo $8.50
Pho dac biet $6.75
Bun bo hue $7
Macaron ice cream sandwiches $3.50