Once again, I am on the hunt for “pho”-tastic bowls of delicious pho from all over. What can I say? I’m a pho-colic. (#Copyright) One of my old reliable spots where I know I can go for a tasty, steaming bowl of pho anytime is at Pho Cali, located in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Pho Cali has very fast service, big portions and a revamped interior—very modern, but still typical layout for the neighborhood. While it’s not a huge place, there are about 50 seats and usually a seat available. Each of the tables is outfitted with its own condiment tray filled with traditional pickled jalapeños, Sriracha sauce, sambal olek—a Southeastern garlic and chili paste, among others, as well as packets of chopsticks, a squeeze bottle of hoisin sauce and Asian soup spoons. Very convenient. While this place might not be as cheap as some of the places on Washington Avenue in South Philly, but you’re also paying slightly extra for Center City location. Typically it’s about $6.50-$9.50 for a bowl of pho. Still cheaper than a lot of other places.
Pho is delicious. Fact. But it tastes even better when it follows some sort of tasty appetizer. Not only does the starter whet the palate, but it also stops me from inhaling the entire bowl of pho in like five point two seconds flat. Is that a world records? One of my favorite appetizers here is the Summer Rolls with Shrimp and Pork or Tom Cuon. The summer rolls are wrapped in a thick chewy wrapper of pliable, soft rice paper. It’s stuffed with big chunks of shrimp, though not a ton of pork, and lots of vermicelli noodles to help fill it up. The dipping sauce was pretty thin and a little bland on its own, but after adding a bit of the sambal, tithe flavors really popped. The heat made the earthy, peanut overtones of the sauce pop. Very fresh appetizer and at $3.95 for two rolls, it’s a pretty good deal.
Up next is the pho. I usually go with the Deluxe House Combo (Dac Bet Xe Lua). For $9.50 you get a huge bowl of food. It might be more expensive than some Vietnamese restaurants, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. The broth is very clean and clear, and doesn’t feel greasy or heavy. At the same time, the soup gives you a blank canvas to work on—perfect to doctor up with some chili sauce, hoisin, lime, herbs, etc. There’s a good amount of noodles and meat—especially for the price—mostly brisket and flank steak. There are also scallions in the soup, which isn’t seen everywhere, but gives it a very mild onion flavor.
Pho Cali always provides a super fresh plate of traditional noodle soup garnishes including basil leaves, sliced jalapeños, bean sprouts, and lime wedges. The basil gives the soup a slight floral note as well as a sense of freshness, the bean sprouts help cool the soup down, the jalapeños give it s nice bite, and the lime helps cut through some of the fatty meat. I also add hoisin to sweeten it up a bit and chili sauce, which flavors the broth over time. The heat of the broth not only cooks some of the beef, but also helps release the spice from the chilis. By the end of the bowl, I’m ready to gulp down the leftover broth, which is deliciously full of concentrated flavors from all the add-ins.
Overall, is this the best pho house around? No. Is it always tasty and able to satisfy my pho-holic cravings? Oh yeah! Next time you’re in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and craving a meaty, comforting noodle soup, head on over to Pho Cali for your “ph”-illing of pho.