November 1, 2013 Updated: November 1, 2013 at 8:30 am
When I moved here 20 years ago, there weren't a lot of options for Vietnamese food. Today, though, it seems like pho shops, which specialize in the Vietnamese soup, are popping up all over town.
It's becoming more difficult for the average restaurant to stand out.
Pho 54 stands squarely in the middle of the road. The menu is compact, but the soups are very good. Other Vietnamese items are competent, but won't offer any culinary epiphanies. The pricing makes Pho 54 a bargain, and the owners and staff are exceptionally friendly and helpful.
The restaurant has undergone some renovations this year. A fresh paint job and the addition of a host stand give the place a more settled, established feeling than you might expect from its strip mall location. The service is swift and gracious, and most of the food will leave you feeling satisfied.
The Guoi Cuon (spring rolls, $2.95 for two) are adequate. The ingredients are all fresh, but not very memorable. The pork and shrimp version has the edge over the vegetarian. The latter holds limp slices of sauteed tofu that don't add to either the flavor or the texture of the finished product.
If "pho" is in the name of the restaurant, the soup had better be good. And it is.
Basic pho, which is a popular Vietnamese street food, relies on a beef broth deeply flavored with onion, ginger, anise, fennel and other spices. Pho 54 delivers, in spades. The beef varieties ($5.95-$7.95) can be tailored to suit your appetite with rare steak, well-done brisket, tripe, tendon and meatballs. My favorite is the steak pho, which features wafer-thin slices of raw meat that are dropped into the boiling broth to barely cook. Nothing tastes better on a cold day.
The Ga version (chicken, $5.95-$7.95) has the same great flavor profile, done with a deeply flavored chicken broth. Unfortunately, the white meat used in the soup was unpleasantly dry and chewy.
There is a vegetarian version, Pho Chay, but be aware that you need to specify that you want it with vegetable broth when you order. If you don't tell them, you'll get the beef broth. Still, the waitress was cheerful (and fast) about replacing our order. The resulting soup has a lighter flavor, but is still hearty, loaded with simmered white onions, chopped scallions, sliced button mushrooms and soft chunks of sauteed tofu.
If you're feeling adventurous when the specials include Bun Bo Hue (spicy beef noodle soup, $8.95), go for it. Instead of the deep beefy bass note you find in pho (which is pronounced fuh), this soup is a symphony of salty, sweet and hot. The broth is flecked with chilis and flavored with lemongrass. Our waitress asked if we wanted the traditional pig's food included. Of course we said yes, but it's nice to have the option not to.
All of the soups come with a platter of fresh vegetables, which allows you to customize the flavor. These include sliced jalapenos, fresh lime wedges, crisp bean sprouts, stems of fresh cilantro and fragrant branches of basil. If you order the Bun Bo Hue, you'll get sliced banana flowers instead of bean sprouts. The light brown tangles of shoots taste slightly sour on their own, but add a bright note against the spiciness of the soup.
The "dry dishes" on the menu (both $8.95) include a combination bun (noodle) bowl and a combination Com Dac Biet (rice plate). These are nice options if you aren't craving soup. When I sampled the Bun bowl, the grilled beef, pork and chicken were fine and the vegetables were fresh, but the sliced egg roll was fried so hard it was difficult to chew. The dressing, normally sweet and tangy, came down too hard on the sweet side. The egg roll on the rice plate was better cooked. The topping of crispy fried white onion with chopped fresh spring onion was a great companion to the grilled meats, rice and fried egg.
One last detail. All of the versions of pho feature skinny, chewy rice noodles swimming in the broth. (The Bun Bo Hue has slightly thicker noodles.) I've given up any hope of eating these long noodles with grace, so I try to slurp quietly over the bowl and remember to not wear a white shirt. This soup is definitely worth a little extra laundry.
Details: Pho 54
Restaurant Character: A small, family-run restaurant specializing in delicious Vietnamese soups.
Rating total: 4 out of 5 stars
Food: 4 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Service: 5 out of 5 stars
Address: 1371 N. Academy Blvd.
Contact: 380-0000, no website
Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Credit cards: Yes
Vegetarian options: Pho Chay (soup, $8.95)
What's online as of Oct. 23, 2013:
- 90 percent of 111 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon
- 4 out of 5 stars based on 43 reviews on Yelp
- On Facebook but not active; search "Pho 54"
- Two violations were marked during a September, 2013 inspection by the El Paso County Health Department