Two restaurateurs join forces to craft an inventive menu of Vietnamese comfort food that will bowl you over
The legal district — that area between Bonneville and Bridger avenues comprising courthouses, legal offices, and the handful of our city’s tall buildings that aren’t casinos, condos, or Zappos — isn’t the sexiest part of Downtown. There are no happening destination bars to speak of, and the restaurants cater safely to the suit-and-tie lunch crowd. But with hungry new residents migrating to the area’s modern apartments, two restaurateurs, Khai Vu of District One and Dan Coughlin of Le Thai, have brought a pho joint — but not just any pho joint — to the neighborhood.
Pho has rarely been done with any justice in this town. The closest anyone’s come is, oddly enough, District One, famous for its pho bowls garnished with either an entire Maine lobster or a softball-sized end of a cow femur. If you like the pho at District One, you will fall in love with Le Pho. The new spot, situated at the bottom of the Juhl residential high-rise, falls right in line with the “hip urban eatery” format — big on the raw materials, funky art, industrial vibe. The cook line is exposed, and you’re likely to see Khai or Dan themselves back there putting the finishing touches on a dish. But underlying the trendy exterior is a serious commitment to the craft of this seemingly humble Vietnamese noodle soup.
Pho is a deceptively difficult and time-consuming dish to do well. Ingredients must be charred, spices portioned and wrapped in a cheesecloth like a tea bag, and various cuts of beef, bones, and oxtail must be simmered for hours. Unless they want to dedicate a person to babysit a steaming pot of water all day, lesser chefs try to fake the flavor by loading up on the salt and fat and cooking way too fast. That’s clearly not the case here at Le Pho, where the eponymous dish is labored over obsessively. They’ve extracted so much flavor in the making of their pho bone broth, you might think it’s actually based on a deep and complex dashi-based ramen stock. But there are no tricks here — and no cheating, either.
Each bowl is served with the various garnishes that make pho a fun, customizable dish: Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges, cilantro, jalapeño, red onion. (In my book, there’s nothing wrong with going all the way and dumping all the garnishes right into the bowl.) You can get pho with oxtail, chicken, rib eye, or go for the “house special,” which is nearly the whole kitchen: rib eye, flank, tendon, tripe, and meatball. As you might suspect, the house special is for adventurous eaters.
While great, the pho is not necessarily the star of Le Pho. They have a section of spring rolls that will make you question every flimsy excuse for a spring roll you’ve ever had. Here they offer bold versions that combine grilled five-spice pork, basil, and scallion oil (the Le Pho Roll), as well as one full of Lap Cheong sweet sausage, dried shrimp, shredded egg, and jicama (the Bo Bia Roll), among others. Their starters section features a couple deep cuts from Vietnamese favorites: the rich and tender “Grandma’s Grilled Pork Cheek,” a Da Nang-style fish cake, and some tasty pork and crab egg rolls with wood ear mushroom. Their chicken wings are, well, chicken wings. They seem a bit out of place, but the tamarind sauce with thinly sliced and fried garlic make these ones to beat.
Their selection of French-Vietnamese sandwiches, banh mi, isn’t as customizable as Lee’s Sandwiches, but they’re far better in quality, packed with cold cuts and pork pâté. It also features one of the best items on the menu, the Pho Dipped. Braised beef brisket, bean sprouts, basil, hoisin and Sriracha nestle in a crusty baguette, with a side of pho broth for dipping. This dish is the definition of comfort food.
Le Pho also takes on another hybrid, the banh xeo, or Vietnamese crêpe — think a very wide and flat spring roll in a much tastier wrapper. Also in this section is Ben Thanh Market Fried Rice, named so after a massive marketplace in District One of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a place where vendors have been gathering since the 17th century to hawk street food, and Le Pho’s fried rice reflects the restless, cosmopolitan spirit of Vietnamese cuisine: Dried shrimp, egg whites, diced asparagus, and a salt-cured egg yolk make this savory, complex rice dish a standout. And just when you thought this place had everything, you realize they have some decent cocktails (try the green apple) and damn good desserts, too, including a burnt caramel flan that balances sweetness and cream beautifully.
Le Pho isn’t perched amid the vibrant Downtown nightlife like Le Thai, but it can be no less a success if it can build a regular clientele. With businesspeople circulating during the day and apartment-dwellers all around, Le Pho has an opportunity to be “the place” among this subsection of Downtowners. Le Pho just has to do three things: They must serve — or be perceived to serve — healthy fare; they must keep people’s attention through rotating menus or chalkboard specials; and they must remain consistent. By my early impressions, there’s little doubt that Khai Vu and Dan Coughlin will pull it off and quickly cement this venture as a new Downtown favorite.
353 Bonneville #115,
HOURS Mon-Sat 11a-11p; Sun 11a-9p