You might catch the glow of the neon soup bowl that forms the ‘o’ in the sign welcoming you to Pho Noodles in Midtown. But you also might
miss the cozy Vietnamese eatery if you drive by too quickly.
Tucked into the corner of a strip mall near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Osborn Road, Pho Noodles sits a few doors down from Peter Piper's Pizza and a Great Clips hair salon.
Inside, the simple red and grey decor is enhanced only by a few plants, some Vietnamese artwork on the walls and an iconic lucky cat at the cash register. It's pleasant enough, but you're here for the food — specifically, the savory pho, whose deeply layered broth has been cooking for who knows how long.
It’s okay to order the same thing almost every time you visit. I do.
My jam is the phở chay
, with rice noodles, tofu and veggies in a vegan-friendly broth. I’m not vegan or even vegetarian. It's just that good.
The steaming bowl is filled with delicate, lacy noodles, crisp-tender broccoli, round slices of scalloped carrots, and ample lily pads of cabbage, then garnished with scallions. But the broth is where the magic happens. It's smooth and perfumed like a potion, with hints of star anise and ginger that pull your nose closer, as if it were sending out pheromones.
Perhaps more impressive than the scent is the speed with which the soup arrives. Not only is the food served hot, but it somehow comes out faster than a quarter-pounder and fries at the drive-thru.
I slide in the garnishes — a side plate of Thai basil, fresh sprigs of cilantro, jalapeño slices, a lime wedge, and a mountain of bean sprouts — and add my own flourishes: a heavy hand of hoisin sauce, a scoop of housemade chili oil, and what most would consider too much sriracha Jackson-Pollocked across the top.
Not that I haven’t ventured beyond my comfort dish. The phở tái chin
, with its feathery slices of rare steak, has a deep, meaty broth that reaches a rich brown but clear hue thanks to seven secret spices and at least nine hours of simmering. The chả giò
are cigar-sized fried egg roll crunchers filled with more minced pork than vegetables that light up with the accompanying nước chấm dipping sauce
. The gỏi cuốn tôm
, tightly packed parcels of thin rice vermicelli, crunchy shredded vegetables and shrimp, live up to their reputation. And the mì vàng xào đặc biệt
— egg noodles stir-fried with tender, thinly sliced beef and bright vegetables — is sauced just right.
The only thing I wouldn’t order again is the bánh mì
. The Pho Noodles version of this Vietnamese sandwich has the right fillings, but in the wrong proportions. Bottom line, there’s just too much bread. There's no alcohol on the menu, but it's hardly missed among the fresh fruit smoothies and perfectly bitter yet perfectly balanced Vietnamese iced coffee. The most popular drink, however, appears to be Coke in the can.
For five years, customers have kept coming back to Pho Noodles for the same reasons: the rich and radiant pho and the efficient and friendly service. There's no spicy Instagram account or even a dedicated website (just Yelp), so the eclectic clientele — a colorful mix of singles, doubles, couples, families and groups — is worth noting. How did they all find this place? Most got here the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.
An order of #17, crispy egg noodles with tofu and veggies, and #52, a rice noodle and BBQ beef feast.
I recently took my young teenagers to the family-friendly restaurant, where they used chopsticks for the first time.
My 13-year-old son had the mì xào giòn đặc biệt, with its coiled, crispy, golden nest of noodles serving
as a cloudlike bed for a glistening array of stir-fried veggies and a combo of beef, shrimp and chicken. It's all bathed in a bewitching, slightly sweet brown sauce that has the umami of oyster sauce and jolty zing of soy, yet, like most things at Pho Noodles, is a creation all its own.
My other son ate a meaty chicken wing with his hands, the crackling edge apparent even under the glassy sauce, a spicy varnish that definitely comes with some heat. The visible chili pepper seeds and deep burnt-orange color, not to mention the "spicy" menu designation, are red-hot herrings. They’re the kind of wings that invite messiness; in other words, his kind of wings. Chicken Kid went into carnivore mode, and when he came up for air, his hands were covered in the evidence, digits so drenched in saucy goodness, the table napkins barely made a dent. He left to wash his hands, then returned, only to make the trip three more times.
This was the first time I’d taken my kids to Pho Noodles. No one knew my name or order by heart, yet I walked in feeling the kind of comfort usually reserved for long-familiar places, like my childhood home or my grandmother’s house. Blame it on the pho. Ah, the comforting magic of soup.
Spicy chicken wings at Pho Noodles are sauce and so worth the messy fingers.
3417 North 7th Avenue
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday to Sunday
Spring rolls with shrimp $4.50
Vietnamese egg rolls with pork and vegetables $4.50
Spicy chicken wings $9.75
Rice noodle soup with tofu and vegetables $9.75
Rice noodle soup with rare steak $9.50
Crispy fried egg noodles with chicken, shrimp, and beef $11.75