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The first bowl of the original Pho 75’s second life is a regular—as opposed to large—No. 10. Translated into words…well, that’s next to impossible. But here’s a sketch: Strips of eye-of-round meat and pure brisket fat sliced translucent-thin. A broth that’s heady but not too beefy, cut with tangy whiffs of ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and clove. Some cilantro for gregariousness. A minuscule shower of sliced chives. Slithery rice noodles. Then there are the fixins: Fresh-squeezed lime. A squirt of chili sauce. A healthier squirt of hoisin. A handful of sprouts. A bunch of basil. Thin coins of jalapeno ripped in half.
I know the intimate details of the first bowl because it belongs to me. It steams its way to my table at roughly 9:25 a.m. on Feb. 7, about 10 minutes after I arrive—it’s slow by Pho 75’s quicksilver standards, but I’ve caught the staff in the middle of a meeting. The waiters and cooks, dressed in white, restaurant-issue golf shirts, listen intently as Pho 75 co-owner and President Thiep Le delivers a low-key pep talk in Vietnamese. Almost as soon as the meeting adjourns, a waiter is at my table asking if I need a menu. Not if it’s the same as the old one, I answer. It is. Not two minutes later, I’m staring into the tawny depths of No. 10.
Today marks the start of a new era for Pho 75, the area’s first pure pho house, which, after 15 years of service, was unceremoniously excused from its original location last spring (“Ethnic Cleansing,” 4/30/99). The restaurant’s closing was no small matter to fans of its not-just-soups. Just watch as the regulars trickle in on this first new morning. One brings flowers and hugs. Another carries a grocery bag filled with Dom Perignon.
“A lot of people are happy,” says a smiling Dung Phan, Le’s nephew and the restaurant’s manager. There’s plenty to be happy about: The new space is a full third bigger than the old one, with a kitchen now large enough to accommodate an extra kettle for chicken pho, the lone menu addition. The paint may be slightly (OK, a lot) brighter than the nicotine-stained stuff that covered the old 75’s walls, but it’s still a utilitarian restaurant: Regular bowls are under five bucks, large ones slightly above, and there’s no decoration worth noting except for the Vietnam-shaped clock behind the cash register. It’s almost as if the restaurant never went away. Same staff. Same food. Same Wilson Boulevard strip mall, even. “Whoa,” cries one regular upon entering the first morning. “I’ve been here before.”
There may be some who would prefer a less-than-carbon-copy version of the old 75, if only for the sake of spite: When Colonial Village Shopping Center’s landlord, Wilma Roumel, blindsided her tenants with notices to vacate last year, the mall’s restaurant owners, many of them ethnic minorities and most longtime renters, felt disrespected; Roumel’s plan at the time was to renovate the building and fill it with more nationally recognized tenants, many of them restaurants. Roumel won’t comment on her change in plans, and she says that she still isn’t certain who will fill the spaces left empty from the spring purge. All she knows is that she’s happy to have Pho 75 back.
And the Pho 75 people are glad to be back, for the most part. Phan says a bit of prodding—not to mention a better lease (five years with a five-year option to follow)—was required to get his uncle back into business with Roumel. Despite having a Ballston space all but lined up, Le relented. “I wanted to go back because I love the location and the Arlington/Rosslyn customers,” he says, adding that nostalgia also played a role in his decision: The Arlington Pho 75 was his first restaurant. So, he says, “I accepted the big mess of the story and went back.”
In the days before it turned into a mess, the Pho 75 story was actually quite charming. Le speaks longingly of the soup houses that dot the corners of Vietnamese cities and how the absence of such restaurants in D.C. convinced him to open one here 15 years ago. Today, the restaurateur is a part-owner in seven Pho 75 franchises—five in the D.C. area and two in Philadelphia—and he’s a firm believer in the soup’s regenerative powers. “In Vietnam,” he says, “it’s eaten at breakfast, lunch, dinner; in small and large [portions]; with beef or just with noodles. Pho is part of life. After a party, if you drink too much, you head into my restaurant and the hangover is gone.”
The soup itself is a product of Vietnam’s relatively meager resources. The jungle-choked country is hardly flush with grazing land, and pho is essentially a case study in how to make a cow go a long way. As Phan demonstrates in the new Pho 75’s kitchen, the dish is interactive: The meat that’s boiled with spices for up to 12 hours to yield cauldrons of broth is saved, cooled, sliced thin, and then added sparingly to that same broth to be reheated just before it’s served. (No. 10 is one of the few exceptions to this rule—it contains rare beef.)
During rush hours, as many as five cooks are involved in the preparation of each order: The first stands with a bowl in one hand and a colander of uncooked rice noodles in the other; he dips both items into a pot of boiling water, heating the bowl and cooking the noodles. The dish is then passed to a series of cooks, who add meat, broth, and vegetables, and then send it on its way.
Pho 75’s kitchen is strikingly spare, and the single-mindedness of the cooks performing the pho ballet is instructive. The soup’s a fairly inelegant thing—just noodles and stuff. But anyone who’s ever succumbed to a bowl at Pho 75 would not be surprised to learn that there’s a different person behind each of the soup’s many components.
“There are Vietnamese restaurants that serve pho as well as other dishes,” explains Phan, a former computer consultant who’s partial to No. 14 (eye-of-round steak and bible tripe). “But you know that those restaurants are not specialized in one thing, so they can never be as good as a place that specializes in just pho.”
Pho 75, 1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 525-7355.
Cafe Citron’s name does not lie—the lemonade’s certainly sharp, and after eating in the Latin bistro’s brightly colored dining room, I don’t have to wonder what it’s like to be inside a lime. The restaurant replaced Mr. Eagan’s, so we can safely assume that the fruity gleam is being used to exorcise any lingering demons left over from the reign of that late, great beer joint. The food is homey, affordable, and, as one reader puts it, “good enough so that you don’t care about not being able to order a beer.” The relleno de papa is particularly striking: Think shepherd’s pie squished into the shape of a pancake and topped with pico de gallo.
Cafe Citron, 1343 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 530-8844. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.