Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dining Out: Pho 501

So I had to work all day Saturday, but that cloud had a silver lining: It gave me an opportunity to explore some of the culinary delights of East Hartford, where my place of employment is located. For lunch I checked out longtime local favorite Augie & Ray's Drive In, and for dinner, I finally made it to Pho 501, a spot I'd been longing to try for some time. A full report on Augie & Ray's will have to wait, because I was eating alone, and sampling just one item on their menu is insufficient data.

But no such problem exists at Pho 501, which appears to only serve one item — the Vietnamese noodle soup called pho (forgive me for lacking the HTML-fu to render it in proper characters) — and only one variety of it on any given day. Saturday, it was spicy beef, and it was delicious. I must say, this was only my second visit to a pho shop, and the two could not have been more different: The other shop, Pho 75 in Arlington, Virginia, which I visited with some Pharyngula friends last August while on business in Alexandria, boasted a huge range of choices, many of which seemed to differ only in ways too subtle for this non-Vietnamese diner to quite comprehend, and accompanied by a literally bewildering array of fresh herbs, chiles, and sprouts. It was all very intimidating; enough to make me google "how to eat pho." It seems I had guessed right, for the most part.

Pho 501, by comparison, is brutally simple: The only choice to make is whether to order a small, medium, or large bowl (I ordered medium, and it was the perfect size for me, as a Gentleman of Substance®), and the accompaniments to my meal were limited to a plate full of fat, crisp raw bean sprouts and beautifully fragrant Thai basil, plus a wedge of lime. As one online reviewer put it, Pho 501 serves a "clean" broth, without the unctuous tripe and tendon that I've seen Anthony Bourdain wax orgasmic over on more than one TV show... but that suits me fine. The broth was rich, deep, and flavorful, and the noodles and beef perfectly cooked. Gentle applications of sriracha and hoisin, a squeeze of lime, and periodic additions of shredded basil and sprouts and... mmmm, heaven! I know I'll be back soon!

A word to the wise, though: This is a small place, and even for a late-ish Saturday dinner, the dining room was nearly completely full. Many times I've driven past and seen people lined up outside the door. A fellow diner Saturday told me that the chicken pho served on Sundays is especially popular, and often sells out. "You have to call ahead and reserve a bowl," he told me, "Not a table; a bowl."

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