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December 30, 2010

Pho Thanh

Cha Gio Dominic Armato

Sussing out traditional Asian favorites has been a little frustrating this year. This has been the case for three moves running now and isn't intended as a slight against Phoenix. But it would be folly to suggest that great Asian joints materialize on every street corner here as they do in some other cities. The ethnic populations just aren't here in large numbers. And those that exist seem to be spread far and wide, rather than heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that could support a vibrant Chinatown or Little Saigon or what have you. Vietnamese seems to be the best-represented Asian cuisine here, so back in the spring I started hitting all of the best-known spots in an attempt to set a Phoenix baseline before getting a little more comprehensive in searching out lesser-known joints. Frankly, it was a little disappointing, and I shelved the search for a while. I had decent dishes here and there at places like Da Vang, Khai Hoan, Blue Moon and others, but none of the spots I hit struck me as the kind of place where I knew I could always fall in and have some deftly prepared standards that were good enough not to make me simply wish they were better. Then a couple of months back, I finally hit Pho Thanh. And while I still plan on getting around to try more, I've somehow lost my sense of urgency.

Banh XeoDominic Armato

Pho Thanh's been around for about a year, having taken over for the once-revered Pho Bang's old space. Since my tenure in Phoenix is only about a year old as well, I never had a crack at the old Pho Bang, but it seems to have been rather popular before taking a bit of a nosedive towards the end. All the folks I know who have tried both, however, don't miss Pho Bang for a moment. Pho Thanh is everything I look for in a standby. It's a small, bustling, casual joint that's short on decor and long on menu options. They don't prepare all of my favorites, but there's much to be tried, even if a great many of them are slight variations on a theme. One of my favorite standards are the plain and simple Cha Gio, fried spring rolls. I don't mean to get too excited about such a basic starter, but every time I've had them these really have been exceptional specimens, beautifully light and crisp, the wrappers layered rather than bunched, with great flavor. They're still Cha Gio, but I don't think I've had them any better.

Chao TomDominic Armato

My lone disappointment so far has been the Banh Xeo, a fried pancake filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. It's almost exclusively bean sprouts, and though I appreciate the low price tag, I'd personally prefer they charge an extra dollar or two and get at least a little more pork or shrimp in there. And while I realize there's a balance to be struck between crisp and soft, this got rather doughy in spots. Though better than most of the others I've had in town, it still leaves me wanting. Chao Tom, blended shrimp and pork fat formed around sugarcane and cooked, is a little more successful, though the precise method is a mystery. They're a little singed in places, but they don't have any marks that would indicate they were grilled. Broiled, perhaps? Strange. And I found the seasoning a touch weak. But still, they're quite good, and I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Banh Hoi, intricately woven sheets of rice noodles that are great for wrapping and dipping along with the requisite herbs and vegetables.

Bun Cha Gio Thit NuongDominic Armato

When the weather warms up, I look forward to hitting the bun hard. There are few dishes I find more refreshing on a hot day than a bowl of cool rice noodles doused with salty sweet nuoc cham and topped with pickled vegetables, a mountain of fresh herbs and whatever little meaty tidbits sound good that day. The one I sampled (or stole from my son, as the case may be) was the Bun Cha Gio This Nuong, with more of those crispy rolls and grilled barbecued pork (Thit Nuong). At Pho Thanh, rather than going the threaded-on-a-stick route, they go the patty route for their Thit Nuong, forming a patty out of the pork before grilling and slicing it. I like 'em both, and this is a great version of the latter, with a juicy texture and deep, developed flavor.

Com Tam Thanh Dac BietDominic Armato

Or sometimes I prefer my assortment of Vietnamese meats and vegetables over Com Tam, or broken rice. The house megaplatter is the Com Tam Thanh Dac Biet, which crams as many little components onto the plate as possible. The same barbecued pork patty mentioned above is present, as well as a ton of other items. On the left, my lone disappointment, slivers of stir-fried pork that were very, very dry and lacking flavor. But the rest of the plate was a joy. The top of the two items in the center is a tasty spongy crab and egg patty, to the right of which is Bo Nuong La Nho, seasoned ground beef wrapped in grape leaves and grilled. It's a shadow of the dish on which it's modeled, Bo La Lot, but since I haven't been able to find a place that does it with actual betel leaves, I'm going to assume this is a supply issue. But if anybody finds true Bo La Lot, please let me know. As Wandering Chopsticks once put it, substituting grape leaves for wild betel leaves is like substituting lettuce for basil. My favorite item on the plate is the Tau Hu Ky, a cooked shrimp paste not unlike Chao Tom, but wrapped in paper-thin bean curd and fried. This is a textural delight, delicate and crisp and delicious. Round out the platter with some pickled cabbage and a fried egg, and it's tough to find a better way to spend eight bucks.

Bun Bo HueDominic Armato

The soups and stews I've tried are killer. I love a good bowl of pho as much as the next guy, but I also try very hard to stay out of the pho rut. With places such as these, it seems like all anybody orders is the pho, which is a shame. So I actually haven't tried it yet. Instead, another favorite, Bun Bo Hue, has managed to suck me in. For those unfamiliar, it's another Vietnamese noodle soup that starts with a beef broth base, but it diverges sharply from pho after that. It features a thicker, round rice noodle, an abundance of lemongrass, chiles for spice, it's funked up with fermented shrimp paste (sometimes served on the side, though not here), and unless you're getting the Western treatment, usually has a big chunk of pork hock and cubes of congealed pork blood. Pho Thanh's is intense. Bun Bo Hue is sometimes very light and lemony, but this version is big and bold and not afraid to be quite spicy. It's one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, this is a great version thereof, and I can't recommend it highly enough for those who are in the pho rut.

Bo KhoDominic Armato

Just as wonderful to me is their Bo Kho, a beef stew that has colonial French influence written all over it. It's like the love child of pho and boeuf bourguignon, a beefy stew that's still very light with some killer aromatics, including a great noseful of star anise with every bite. What's more, the chunks of beef are those throwaway bits that are stewed into blissful succulence, all of that fat and sinew turned meltingly tender by heat and plenty of time. There's more beef flavor in one of these bites than an entire beef tenderloin, and it's a shame you see this stuff almost exclusively at Asian restaurants. The Bo Kho is offered in a few different varieties, most of which simply change up the starch involved (rice noodles, here). But there's also Banh Mi Bo Kho, about which I'm rather curious.

Speaking of which, there are other banh mi as well. Not to mention the namesake pho, a page of house specials, family dishes, hot pots... I've barely scratched the surface, though I look forward to continuing to dig. I try to avoid playing the "best" game, but I'm unashamed to call Pho Thanh my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix so far.

Pho Thanh
1702 W. Camelback Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85015
Wed - Mon8:30 AM - 8:30 PM


AS always great review and glad to see that your optimism to find the hidden asian standouts hasn't waned. Hope to join you in your search in the new year...

Hi Dom. Great review. It's always interesting to read people's comments on dishes I grew up on.

FYI, "banh mi" means bread. I'm not sure how this specific restaurant serves it, but a banh mi bo kho is just a bo kho with no noodles, but you'll get a roll of bread or something to dip. That's my preferred way of eating it.

My absolute favorite part of a bo kho are the carrots. They get sooo soft and beefy. My mum know's to load my bowl with tonnes of the stuff!

ph... One of the options is bo kho with French bread, so my suspicion is that the banh mi bo kho is actually a sandwich. It's priced that way as well. Clearly, further research is indicated :-)

I feel deeply shamed for spending the first half of this article wondering how their pho is. ;)

We do branch out a fair amount at my favorite of the Vietnamese places on south Federal Boulevard in Denver, but I definitely get the pho more than anything else. What can I say... I like pho.

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