Neighborhood: Columbia Heights
It's pretty much the opposite of a Monday Munchie in terms of size, but with such a big backlog, and since it's the perfect hangover cure, and hey we make the rules, we're gonna bump up this review in place of a true Monday Munchie.
After working 14 hours the day before, my director let me go home early, so I took the opportunity to pick up some long-overdue items at Target. Last minute, I decided to pick up lunch while I was up there, so I somehow conned Official Friend of DCWD Chi to accompany me to our second Vietnamese meal in a week: Pho 14.
Pho, for the uninitiated, is the Vietnamese noodle soup. Traditionally it's rice noodles in beef broth with different cuts of beef, though there are some variations which have chicken and chicken broth. Typical garnishes include thai basil, lime, bean sprouts, and chili peppers, and some people even squeeze hoisin sauce or Sriracha into the broth. Like much of Vietnamese cuisine, pho is light, so it can be eaten for any meal; I've always said a bowl of warm pho is the perfect hangover cure. Again, full disclosure: both Chi and I are Vietnamese, so the same caveats to this review apply: we love this food, but at the same time, our standards are probably much higher than the average diner.
Unlike finding the best pizza or the best burger in DC, the quest for the best pho in DC is a much more quixotic search. For one, there are just not a lot of Vietnamese eateries within the city limits to begin with, and those that are pay only a perfunctory lip service to pho. And two, the Vietnamese expat community is based out in Northern Virginia and seem disinclined to make any inroads into the District. In a weird coincidence, the morning of this trip, a fellow blogger had asked me what the best pho was in the city, and the closest I could answer was Pho 75 in Rosslyn (which we'll get to before the year is out). Not an auspicious start to this adventure.
Lastly, let's just say it now; it's pronounced fuh, not faux (there's a tonal diacritical mark too, but one step at a time). So no more mispronunciations, for everyone's sake.
There are two rules for picking a pho place that everyone should know:
1) If the restaurant does not have "Pho" in the title, there is a 99% chance that the pho will not be good. Bonus points if the name is Pho [insert number here]. Somebody asked me what the numbers mean; usually it's the road or highway that's closest, but sometimes they're just random. Vietnamese people are strange.
2) There is an inverse relationship between the decor of a pho place and the quality of the pho, which is to say that if it's a hole-in-the-wall, the pho is probably amazing (I think this rule pretty much applies to authentic ethnic food across the board).
By this metric, Pho 14 passed one of the two tests. Part of the Columbia Heights super-gentrification, it shares the same city block as the Target behemoth (though it's on a decidedly less gentrified street). All the same, Pho 14 reflects this upscaling trend. The decor is somewhere between satisfactory and good on the scale; it's not downtrodden, but it's... interesting. The tables are mostly two-tops bunched into different groups, dark-red/brown topped with some abstract beige and white swirls. The walls are a pink-brown shade and are decorated with very Target-esque tchotchkes (like interconnected plates or a metal vase relief). About the only real Vietnamese decorating touches are two really nice red statues of the once again ubiquitous women in rice hats on the bar. This might make the small bar nice enough, but then they line the top with faux straw-roof drapings. So, it's upscale for a pho place, but not without its own, um, charms.
I hadn't thought about it when I invited her, but taking a pescatarian to a pho place is like bringing a snowboarder to Maui; there's really nothing there for them. Certainly, there were other things on the menu, but you don't go to a restaurant called Pho 14 for the spring rolls. Still, by chance, this was the first place to claim a vegetarian pho (which is antithetical to the whole concept, but sure), with a broth made from vegetable stock and Fuji apples. This I had to see. Chi ordered a vegetarian pho, and a sinh to mit (jackfruit smoothie), while I went with a ca phe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee) and a #1 (Tai, Nam, Gan, Gau, Sach, which are raw slices of eye-round, well-done flank, fat brisket, tendon, and bible tripe, respectively).
So for me, there are three things to consider when evaluating a bowl of pho: the quality of the broth, the quality of the meat, and the ratio of the noodles and meat to the broth. The broth was good, with the flavor of the Saigon cinnamon coming through the clearest (though not enough star anise for my taste). The problem with many of the attempts at pho I've had in the city is that they're either watered down or weak, a clear sign that the broth doesn't have enough oil or the meat/bones used for the stock haven't been allowed to simmer long enough to pick up the flavor (my mom, for instance, uses oxtail). I love my broth oily and meaty, and this one was very good in that regard. Overall, probably a shade under my favorite broth ever, but definitely good.
As for the quality of the meat, and the noodle/meat to broth ratio, this is where Pho 14 slipped a tad. The meat was good, don't get me wrong, just not as good as I've had (again the problem of high standards). The flank was up to snuff, but the bo tai (the raw slices of eye round that are cooked by the broth, and my favorite cut of meat) could've been better. More importantly, there was a lot of broth relative to the noodles, so much so that I finished the bowl in under ten minutes, even at a leisurely pace. That was a little disappointing.
As for the other pieces, Chi's pho (which came with mixed vegetables and tofu strips) was decent, but like I intimated before, vegetarian pho is like eating a peanut butter sandwich; I'm sure it tastes fine, but it would be about a thousand times better if there was jelly. The serious disappointment was the ca phe sua da, which was more Starbucks cappuccino than Vietnamese coffee; the traditional sweetness of the condensed milk just wasn't there. Bummer.
On Pho 14's website, they proudly declare that their ambition is to be the best Pho restaurant in the District of Columbia. Perhaps it's the lack of quality competition or the actual merit of the pho, but they certainly achieve this goal. Not the best pho I've had in the metro area, but definitely a close second. As for the date aspect, in and of itself, certainly not my first choice restaurant, but if your date loves pho, and you want to stay within city limits, this is your place.
Food Rating: *** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Cost: $ (out of 5) (less than $25 for two)
Pairing: Hey, if we're going to go one culture for dinner, we can do another one for the date. The Gala Hispanic Theater, housed in the Tivoli Theater, is on the opposite corner of 14th and Park. There's a huge variety of Spanish-language and Latin American theater and art, both modern and classic.