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The number in the name of a restaurant that devotes itself wholly or in large part to serving up pho, the addictive Vietnamese beef-noodle soup, generally indicates the year the owner left Vietnam, or came to America, or, as is often the case, both. The number contextualizes the place, confers a sociological as well as commercial identity. Nowhere is the convention more telling than in the small local chain Pho 75, whose name recalls, in shorthand, the end of a long and terrible war and the beginning of a flood of immigration.
An exception is Pho 88, the appealing 11-month-old restaurant in the newly refaced Chestnut Hill Shopping Center off Route 1 in Beltsville, where owner Alan Tan has chosen a name with a different sort of significance. Tan’s defining passage, it turns out, is not that of new arrival in a strange and hostile land but that of first-timer in the restaurant business.
“Eighty-eight,” he explains, “is a lucky number in my country.”
This sounds, on the surface of it, like an ordinary sort of folkloric invocation—and, really, who can blame him for seeking all the assistance he can get?—but then you discover that the guy is as conversant as anyone with the cruel, fluctuating realities of up-to-the-nanosecond capitalism. For 12 years, Tan worked on Wall Street, first as a stockbroker, then as a money manager, arranging deals and angling for his big payoff down the road. The rise of the Internet, however, was his doom, spelling his increasing irrelevance to a new generation of click-and-point clients, who had only to log on to manage their own portfolios.
The transition to restaurateur seems unlikely, but not entirely impossible—especially for someone focused on the bottom line. What, after all, could be less of a risk than investing your time and energy and capital in a business whose chief product is soup, of all things? Not soups, plural—a half-dozen or more different broths, each requiring the kitchen’s attention—but soup, singular (or in this case, nearly singular, because the menu does include, in addition to the beef-based broth, a chicken-flavored alternative). Straightforward, cheap, and easy—and, to judge from the proliferation of pho shops around town, increasingly popular.
The shrewdness of Tan’s market calculations, however, does not detract from the fact that he has created a place that, if not quite homey, is nonetheless bright and clean, and that, by and large, minds the details.
This is good news for the growing legion of pho faithful in this area, who are no doubt already up in arms over the fact that I just now referred to this meal-in-a-bowl—pronounced fuh, with just a hint of questioning inflection, not unlike every other sentence uttered by a post-post-feminist teenager these days—as soup. Pho may never reach the status of pizza or ribs, with diverse factions all arguing for the legitimacy of their particular persnickety criteria, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually came close. Few foods are so simple and yet offer such a variety of satisfactions.
Start with the broth, a rich, savory concoction requiring as much as a half-day of simmering to coax the flavor from the assortment of oxtail and other beef bones. There may not be scientific evidence on the curative properties of pho, but having slurped down a few bowlfuls at Tan’s restaurant not long ago when I was trying to get over a cold, I can vouch for its remarkable ability to soothe and satisfy. Pho 88’s beef version boasts a richer, slightly fattier broth than most, similar in character to homemade chicken soup.
The comparison has often been made between pho and the Jewish penicillin, and it’s not a bad analogy, as analogies go. But it’s also insufficiently descriptive. Because, as much as you’re comforted by the broth, it’s the strong, heady aromas floating up from the bowl and penetrating your stopped-up sinuses that make you feel like a person again. Chicken soup, wonderful as it can be, has nothing on that perfume, which issues from a balanced blend of ginger, cinnamon, and clove, and is so distinctive but yet indefinable that newcomers are given to downing bowl after bowl in the hope of pinning down that certain, elusive something.
That’s pretty much how it happens: You eat a bowl once, then go another time, and the next thing you know, you’re hooked and wondering how you ever got by without the stuff. There are people, I’m told, who can have a bowl or two of pho and still not see what the big deal is, but a pho eater tends to become a pho lover, a subcategory of food junkie who is willing to travel some distance for her fix.
You can learn a valuable thing or two about eating pho, by the way, from studying such devotees, who can be spotted from the moment a bowl is set down before them, now bringing their heads almost instinctively toward the steam, now closing their eyes, now taking a deep, lingering, soul-clearing whiff. They tend to be ambidextrous eaters, with a spoon in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other (for the noodles), alternating hands every few bites—or slurps, as the case may be.
If pho inspires almost cultlike loyalties, it might also have something to do with the fact that it’s a customized eating experience, allowing for a wide variety of personal preference. Choosing the various cuts of cooked and uncooked beef you want added to the steaming bowl of broth at the end is only the beginning of the self-tailoring. Me, I’m an everything-in-the-bowl-at-the-same-time guy, opting, often as not, for a selection that gives me tripe, tendon, eye of round, braised flank steak, brisket, and fatty brisket; it’s a texture thing, and I love the idea of going from slightly chewy to soft to slippery in successive slurps, as I find myself doing at Pho 88. (This is not something, I need to emphasize, that every pho place can pull off; sometimes, the continuum runs the other way, from soft to chewy to somewhat gristly.) The customization continues at the table, where diners pick from an array of bean sprouts, holy basil, sliced chilis, and lime wedges, drawing as much or as little as they like to perk up their soups.
A bowl of pho can only be enhanced by its add-ons, and Pho 88’s are uniformly fresh and fragrant. The sprigs of holy basil, thick-stemmed and leafy, look plucked from the ground that very day. As for the chilis, they’re not to be confused with the denatured jalapeños we’ve come to see of late in restaurants and markets and grocery stores: They pack a terrific, almost singeing heat. Don’t skip the small bowl of lightly pickled onions, offered as a side; the additional 50 cents is well spent, a bit of sweet sharpness to play against all that soft, savory slipperiness.
Tan has recently added a selection of entrees, in what I interpret as an attempt to broaden the appeal of his menu. The dishes, all of which come with rice, most of which are fried, are the sort of generic, Americanized offerings that I was hoping we’d seen the last of with the previous generation of immigrant restaurants. Not to mention that they’re as perfunctorily tossed off as the pho is lovingly tended. Equally incongruous are the bubble teas and smoothies, the latter of which, although wonderful—particularly a fine, fruity mango and a creamy coconut—are too sweet to share company in the same meal, much less the same mouthful, as the pho. The inclusion of bubble teas, meanwhile, reflects Tan’s keen reading of market trends. These tapioca-pearl drinks, he tells me, are “the second-fastest-growing sector” of the food business. He ought to know: He checked the numbers.
Pho 88, 10478 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, (301) 931-8128. —Todd Kliman
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