Phodown 7: Pho 88

Pho 88
Address: 270 Spadina, Toronto (map)
Date & time of visit: March 10, 2013 + 6:30pm
Price (based on deluxe pho): Small – $5.75; Medium – $6.75; Large – $7.75


Pho 88 Ext

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 6.5 | Beef: 7.5 | Noodle: 7.5 | Condiment: 7.5 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 7.6

Yuki

Broth: 7 | Beef: 6 | Noodle: 7.5 | Condiment: 8.5 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 7.6

Cheryl

Broth: 6 | Beef: 7 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 8.5 | Overall: 7.3

Selma

Broth: 6 | Beef: 6 | Noodle: 6.5 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 8 | Overall: 6.7

Overall Rating: 7.3
Quality per dollar (based on medium pho): 1.08

Write-up from Jason:

Daryl Zero, the titular character from the great 1998 dramedy Zero Effect, at one point states that his method of investigation hinges on two fundamental concepts: “The two obs: objectivity and observation.”

A truly great phodown rests on the same principles, and so I feel I must admit that my objectivity is impaired when it comes to restaurants like Pho 88, Pho Ai My and Pho Jade. In particular, these restaurants try to gussy up pho into something a bit more modern and trendy, an objective that seems at odds with the dish’s humble roots. On this spectrum, Pho 88 reminds me quite a bit of Pho Jade: the interior is certainly fancied up, but it still smacks of a food court. I did appreciate, however, that the facility was maintained a bit better than Ai My. The other warning sign is that Pho 88 brands itself as a purveyor of Vietnamese and Thai food, with pho regulated to two pages near the back of a sprawling menu.

Pho from Pho 88 in Toronto

All of this is to say that I was actually pleasantly surprised by Pho 88. It was by no means a revelatory bowl, but many of the details were spot on. Admittedly, the broth was a weak point. Yelp commenters have noted that the broth is dominated by an aroma of clove. This is spot on. And indeed, all of the phodowners in our visit noted that there wasn’t much depth at all to the broth.

We disagreed most about the beef. I thought the rare beef was of a high quality, but most of the other phodowners took umbrage with the sheer lack of meat. I wasn’t as bothered by this factor, but I have to admit, I could have used a few extra slices of flank. Another complaint was that some of the cuts were too fatty.

In terms of condiments, I was impressed that the Sriacha was actually not of the runny variety that so many pho places seem to be trotting out today. The appearance of sawtooth herb (i.e., culantro) was a plus as well. I didn’t, however, appreciate that the fact that we were given a measly two leaves (for four of us). The quantity of the basil also left a bit to be desired. Otherwise, we enjoyed the freshness of the condiments.

Pho 88 Condiments

The most confounding part of the rating process has to go to the noodle category. Our ebullient server was happy to inform us that Pho 88 offers noodles of both a fresh and dry variety, the fresh being delivered to the restaurant each morning. While it isn’t hard to find fresh rice noodles in Toronto’s Chinatown, her sheer enthusiasm over these noodles caused us all to order them. Given the fact that it’s easy to overcook even the dry ones, I was dubious, and indeed these noodles were a bit overdone. Still, the freshness did lend a texture dry noodles don’t have, and I appreciated the novelty.

I guess the short of it is that it’s important to recognize when your objectivity has been compromised, and try to look past it. A modern interior and a Thai menu, on most days, tend to be indicia of subpar pho. Sometimes life surprises.

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SLURP Noodlefest 2013

Yesterday, Toronto Phodown descended on SLURP Noodlefest, a local celebration of all things long and chewy.  I had few expectations, or even a general idea of how a Noodlefest works, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Gwailo Noodle Dish

Several local restaurants, such as Splendido and Sukothai, set up stalls in the Great Hall on Queen West serving a signature noodle dish, as well as often another side (Splendido did a pork belly big mac as well).  Admittance was about $10 and dishes cost between $5 and $10.  A pleasant surprise was the beverage program.  Drinks were priced at $5 each and were of a high quality.  I had an excellent wasabi caesar, but there was also a ginger-infused gin and tonic on offer that drew raves.

The vibe was pretty laid back as patrons milled around a couple of large rooms with vendors set up along the periphery.  Those wishing to take a load off whilst slurping were invited to enjoy some seating upstairs with a bird’s eye view of the proceedings.  The only major wait was for the Splendio station, which commanded a healthy line throughout my time at Noodlefest.

In terms noodles, I managed to sample three dishes – two phos and a ramen.

First was a duck pho ($4) from Hawthorne Food and Drink, a new restaurant located at 60 Richmond Street East.  This was a fine attempt at a duck pho, but it was my least favorite dish of the day.  While I enjoyed the rich duck broth, I found the roasted duck it was topped with to be over-salted.

Duck Pho

My second try was Splendido’s truffled ramen.  It was an indulgence at $10, but each serving was topped with a healthy dose of freshly sliced black truffle, justifying the cost.  The ramen noodles themselves were well executed with the perfect amount of chew.  These noodles, paired with a giant whiff of truffle and a perfect egg (cooked sous vide) brought a classic dish to new heights.

Splendido Ramen

Finally, I tried the only classic pho available at the festival –  a pho from Richmond Station.  I tend to be skeptical of classic phos served outside of a hole-in-the wall pho joint, but my fears were misplaced here.  Richmond Station served up an extremely well-executed pho with beef brisket.  I was extremely impressed by the broth, which demonstrated a real delicacy in spicing, something that’s often lost in such an intense dish.  A minor quibble is the thick noodles, which I found to be a bit floury.

Richmond Station Pho

As a whole, Noodlefest was a terrific afternoon out among friends and fellow noodle-acolytes, and a great chance to try a variety of restaurants while staying warm and cozy under a single roof.