Downtown Sugar House is bustling these days, in part due to the opening of a gaggle of new eateries all within a few steps of each other, including The Annex By Epic Brewing, Flatbread Neapolitan Pizzeria, Beyond Glaze Gourmet Doughnuts, Melty Way and Habit Burger. It’s true that with the recent revitalization of Sugar House comes traffic woes. But it’s worth driving around to find a parking spot in order to visit one of the newest kids on the culinary block: Pho Thin Famous Vietnamese Noodle House.
I know what you’re thinking: “Do we really need another pho restaurant in Salt Lake City?” It seems to me that in the past few years, the Vietnamese soup known as pho has been surpassed in popularity in this country only by the resurgence of bacon. But Pho Thin is a little different than most of Salt Lake’s Vietnamese restaurants. It’s a bit more upscale than you might normally expect, with a vibrant color palette, subdued lighting, a large communal table in the front of the restaurant, counter seats that are perfect for solo diners, and a couple of booths in the back. The owners are the same family behind Indochine on 1300 East. As for the restaurant’s name, I’m guessing it’s taken from the very popular, always packed Pho Thin in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung district. And like that Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Thin has been packed when I’ve visited.
Getting your head around the Pho Thin menu is a challenge. It’s hard to know quite where to start. There are a half-dozen appetizers, a myriad of pho combinations, rice plates, specialty sandwiches, a variety of spring rolls, curries, wok specialties and desserts—plus, a decent little wine and beer selection. I recommend enlisting one of the excellent Pho Thin servers, like Tuan or Sophia, and asking them to help navigate the extensive menu. On my first visit, we did exactly that, and Tuan suggested we might like to try the rice rolls— specifically, the skewered chicken lemongrass rolls ($13). So we did.
Making the rice rolls is a DIY operation. Thankfully, Tuan gave us a quick lesson in rice rolling. The rice paper used to make the rolls feels like flexible plastic and is about the size of a 33 RPM vinyl record. The rice paper comes to the table with a plastic water reservoir into which you dip the rice paper to soften it.
Once you’ve softened up the rice paper, it’s time to add the fillings. Essentially, you’re making a burrito-style wrap or roll beginning with, in this case, grilled chicken morsels with a hint of lemongrass and peanuts, along with soft rice noodles. You place a few chunks of chicken and some noodles on the rice paper and then add your favorite condiments from a plate that includes shredded carrot, cucumber and radish, along with fresh mint, basil, cilantro and bean sprouts. The end result is a wonderful explosion of flavors and textures. And, by the way, each order comes with enough rice paper and ingredients to assemble about eight rolls, so we took our leftovers home and had a nice rice-roll lunch the following day.
If you’re not up to making your own rice rolls, I suggest ordering the Hanoi pork spring roll ($8). A talented chef friend of mine says he dreams of these spring rolls at night. I didn’t find them dream-worthy, but they were damned tasty. Don’t confuse these babies with the greasy spring rolls you often find in Chinese restaurants. I’m not certain of every ingredient, but I could identify ground pork, mushroom, garlic, scallion, vermicelli, mint and bean sprouts. The rice paper rolls are deep-fried to a satisfying crunch, sliced into eight bite-size portions, and served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.
Naturally, most people come for the pho. For the uninitiated, pho is a beef-based Vietnamese soup with rice noodles. The broth is everything, and is usually made by simmering charred onions and beef bones for a lengthy period. The broth typically has subtle hints of star anise, clove, ginger and cinnamon. To that broth is added the customer’s choice of meats and/or other accessories—and this is where the pho at Pho Thin can get pricey, since every upgrade has a cost.
I should say, first, that the pho broth at Pho Thin is as good as any I’ve tasted. It’s very clear and pure-tasting—pretty much the definition of good pho. To gauge the pho, I ordered the most straightforward version I could: pho with rare Angus beef slices ($8). The noodles were perfectly cooked and, as I said, the broth was excellent, glistening with chopped scallions floating on top. However, the beef was sliced much thicker than in most of the pho I’ve had, and thus was somewhat tough—not the “tender” and “rare” thin-sliced beef I’d hoped for. And upgrades do get costly: $2 for a single egg yolk, $2.50 for extra beef or vegetables, $3 for a “super bowl,” etc.
Other commendable Pho Thin dishes included a five-spice seasoned chicken breast, grilled and served with rice ($12), and especially a delicious plate of tender beef slices in a yellow curry-style sauce with onions, coconut, chopped peanuts and turmeric ($12). The only real miss was an all-too-bland stir-fry of tender chicken-breast slices with broccoli, carrots, onion and mushrooms.
If the crowd of folks awaiting seating on a busy recent Saturday evening is any indication, I’d say Thin is definitely in.
PHO THIN FAMOUS VIETNAMESE NOODLE HOUSE
2121 McClelland St.
Salt Lake City