- Derek Carlisle
Ever since I tried the Peruvian, tripe-centric soup called patasca for one of my first food articles, I had a feeling that the rubbery stomach lining might pop up on my radar a few more times. It's appropriate that it did at Midvale's Pho 33 (7640 S. State, 801-889-4090, because I've been a bit of a pho-natic ever since I first encountered the tasty Vietnamese noodle soup.
Despite the fact that authentic pho is served with thinly sliced ribbons of tripe, I've always avoided that option because tripe freaked me out. Now that I've chased the intestinal dragon and discovered it's really not all that bad aside from a few textural hang-ups, I entered this casual Vietnamese restaurant fully prepared to order its namesake dish—the Pho 33 ($8.50).
While awaiting this rich and fragrant noodle soup that's become a trendy comfort food, I started to think about the oxtail, tripe and beef tendons simmering in the kitchens of Pho 33. While it's hard to swallow for most westerners, the offal we usually throw away is popular in the foundations of many international food cultures. Pho, like patasca, was developed hundreds of years ago by working-class people who had to get creative because their food options were limited. Tripe, tendons and bones made their way into traditional Vietnamese soup because they were—and still are—cheap ways to impart more flavor into what otherwise would be a one-note dish. Diving into a bowl of Pho 33 showcases the roots of all the different iterations of this soup we've come to know and love.
I don't have long to ruminate on my pho's origin story before it comes to my table, steaming with the aroma of anise and cinnamon—the service here is prompt and friendly. Its broth is characteristically deep russet in color with flecks of finely chopped green onions and cilantro happily floating on the surface. The only marked difference between this bowl of pho and those I have procured elsewhere is the fist-sized chunk of oxtail that sits like an uncharted island within a sea of heady broth. The tripe is sliced so thinly that it becomes virtually indistinguishable from the noodles, and it provides just enough textural contrast to make me glad it's there.
In addition to the more naughty bits, the Pho 33 comes with sliced brisket and meatballs, making this one of the more beef-centric meals you can get your hands on here. There are multiple layers of umami, though the presence of that oxtail bone had me expecting just a bit more depth. The pho still manages to be the warm, comforting bit of cultural history I love. Those who aren't interested in offal can get pho with Kobe beef ($12.50) or filet mignon ($8.50).
Venturing away from its wide variety of noodle soups is a little hit-and-miss. A dish called ap chao is on their list of house specials, so I decided to give the combination ($9.95) a go. The foundation of this dish is a bed of flat noodles that have been cooked and then pan-fried into crispy, cake-like patties. The combo comes with slices of beef and chicken, shrimp and veggies like carrots and bok choy. There's nothing particularly wrong with this dish, and the crispy edges of the pan-fried noodles add some nice texture, but the soy sauce-based gravy offers the same flavor that you could get at any take-out restaurant. As I've also got a pot-sticker addiction, I can't resist ordering them as an appetizer if they're on the menu. The pot stickers ($4.95) at Pho 33 are more on the deep-fried end of the dumpling spectrum, and the outer shell was a bit overdone for my taste. The filling, however, was juicy and flavorful, once again proving that Pho 33 knows its beef.
For a place that takes its name from its signature dish, it's wise to stick to the pho section of the menu at Pho 33. The variety is hard to beat, and it's a great place to revisit the historical roots of an item that has become a lunchtime staple of the urban diner.