For many years, the longstanding Vietnamese eatery at Camelback and 17th Avenue was my go-to place (in that part of the Valley, anyway) for a steaming, soul-satisfying bowl of pho, a cheap, filling rice dish, or even just a snack of summer rolls and a strong iced coffee. I'll always remember the faded copies of an old newspaper article, which touted the restaurant as one of Senator John McCain's favorite spots, tucked beneath the glass tabletops.
But when the quality of the food and service started to head downhill, my heart sank right along with it. At some point, after an encounter with a particularly ungracious waitress and an inedible plate of food, I stopped going altogether, and by then had fallen in love with Da Vang, a great Vietnamese spot on nearby 19th Avenue. When word got out that Pho Bang finally kicked the bucket, it sadly came as no surprise.
Now, this unassuming corner along the light rail is back on my personal map as a favorite haunt for casual Vietnamese eats. Pho Thanh, which took over the same space, is actually better than Pho Bang was, a cleaner, brighter dining room with tastier food.
Funny thing is, the new owners hardly did a thing to change it. They've apparently scrubbed the walls and added colorful menu signage behind the counter, but other than that, the décor is identical, right down to the oversize posters of a demure Vietnamese model that look like they were pulled out of an '80s time capsule. And there's still a TV in the corner showing Vietnamese music videos with karaoke subtitles.
The service has improved, too, although if you're here around noon, things might get a little chaotic. One day, I saw about 20 customers walk in the door one right after the other, and my poor waiter had to practically sprint to accommodate them.
As the name would suggest, pho is the house specialty, with quite a few different variations, including chicken, seafood, or cuts of beef added to fragrant broth and tender rice noodles. I went with pho filet dac biet, brimming with slices of beef tenderloin and brisket, and small bits of tripe and soft tendon. I customized it with fresh cilantro, sawtooth herb, mung bean sprouts, jalapeño, a squeeze of lime, and some sriracha added to beefy, opaque broth that was just salty enough and had a mouthwatering whiff of star anise.
In all, it was such a generous serving of soup that I ate until nearly bursting — and still couldn't see the bottom of the bowl by the time I finally threw in the towel out of sheer exhaustion.
For something more unusual, and just as filling, I recommend the tamarind soup with shrimp and vegetables, whose pungent, tangy broth is spiked with red chile. This had the intensity of flavors that usually gets me craving Thai food; next time I need some to put color back in my cheeks, I'll come to Pho Thanh for this dish instead.
Even though all the soups and entrées are plenty of food, it's worth it to try some of the sharable appetizers, or even make a meal out of them. Sure, I liked the plump goi cuon, with pork, shrimp, and vermicelli wrapped tightly in moist rice paper, but I found the do-it-yourself apps more fun to eat, such as the balls of shrimp paste grilled on skewers of sugarcane, served with lettuce, cilantro, sawtooth herb, mint, peanuts, thin vermicelli patties, and a bowl of hot water for soaking your own rice paper wrappers.
You make your own summer rolls, basically, and it turns any meal into its own entertainment. Likewise, delicious grilled beef packaged in tangy grape leaves (bo nuong la nho), and a fat, saffron-yellow crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, and sprouts, were served in D.I.Y. fashion, with frilly leaves of lettuce and cool nuoc cham dipping sauce to tame the rich flavors.
Some friends and I also had a blast cooking our own entrée one day, letting pats of butter ooze over a tabletop griddle to sizzle up slices of raw beef tenderloin and butterflied shrimp flecked with bits of bright green lemongrass paste. These, too, were served with an abundant platter of greens.
We really didn't want to go back to work that day, it was so delicious and filling and leisurely. Let me tell you, I was truly grateful for the caffeine in my café sua da, potent iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.
Pho Thanh has quite a few com tam "broken rice" dishes, made with steamed bits of rice instead of whole rice grains. They're served simply, heaped with meats like barbecued pork or charbroiled chicken, and are some of the best budget eats in Phoenix, usually running about five bucks apiece. Stir-fried green beans with sliced tenderloin was another unpretentious, filling dish.
But I was more impressed with "shaken beef," which sparked my curiosity before it ultimately made my mouth water. This was similar to Korean bulgogi (but not spicy), with tender chunks of marinated beef and onions served on a sizzling platter, gradually becoming more caramelized and delicious. "Salty fish fried rice," studded with shrimp, onions, and bits of egg, was another winner — moist and a little chewy, with crispy browned rice bits.
It may sound like I ate a ton of food at Pho Thanh — and that's true. But can you believe I barely made a dent in the menu? With more than 160 offerings to choose from, this place will require many more visits before I can really say I've tried most of it.
You'll know where to find me.