The middle of June is hardly the ideal time of year to enjoy soup.
But there is one kind of soup that I have to have year-round, regardless of the heat or humidity.
I have a jones for this stuff, and, once the mood strikes, there is nothing that will cure my insatiable appetite except the brothy elixir packed with thin, perfectly cooked rice noodles, all sorts of cow parts – thinly sliced steak, bits of chewy tendon and fat or shreds of chewy tripe – and however much fresh basil and cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapeños and hot sauce my heart desires.
Vietnamese pho is peasant food at its finest, and I got my fix recently at a new place dishing out the stuff: Pho 888 in the 14 West shopping center on Illinois Road.
The pho I chose was the Pho Dac Biet, No. P-1 on the menu, which promised all of the little mystery bits I love – sliced beef, flank, tendon, tripe and beef meatballs.
Its smell was intoxicating and the noodles could not have been more perfect. It was dotted on top with fresh herbs and green onion, and there was a ton of meat. The thin slices of super-soft meatballs were easy to spot, as were the fingerlings of tripe, which were about as tender as this rubbery offal can be. The fatty, gelatinous pieces of tendon were also surprisingly tender.
Fresh cilantro, jalapeño and sprouts were offered on the side as garnish, but I had to ask for Thai basil, which is usually customary. Spicy chili oil was on the table when I arrived, and a squeeze tube of what I can only assume was Sriracha hot sauce was brought with the soup. I used both to liven up what was a rather timid broth.
A gentleman who I assumed was a manager or owner of the restaurant explained that Pho 888 uses no MSG and derives all of its broth – beef, pork or chicken – strictly from meat bones. Although all rather light in terms of richness, the broths in my pho and the two egg noodle soups I tried still had the wonderful herbaceous overtones that good pho should have with hints of coriander, cinnamon and anise.
The Mi Kho yellow egg noodle soup with pork was unassembled with the noodles, sliced meat, scallions and a ton of cilantro arriving in the bowl alone with a second bowl of pork broth to be added. I didnt see the need as I immediately combined it all together to form a tasty soup.
I did not like the yellow egg noodles as much, however, as they were more al dente and had sort of a crumbly texture similar to that of whole-grain pasta.
That grainy pasta did not keep me from loving the Mi Tom shrimp egg noodle soup, however. This big bowl of the same pork broth was packed with plump jumbo shrimp that were sweet and succulent and became quite delicate after swimming in the broth, which also had flecks of fried onion scattered throughout.
The same jumbo shrimp were sliced and wrapped in the Goi Chon rice paper rolls. Although the menu said this appetizer included two cold rolls, I received four large rolls – each about 6 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. The shrimp were just under the wrap atop the filling of chopped rice noodles, cabbage, carrot and fresh sprouts. On the bottom side of the wrap, thin slices of pork just like the ones in the Mi Kho rested just under the rice paper. Without the broth to help it, the pork was dry and unappetizing, and I would have rather had more shrimp.
Pho 888s crispy chicken egg rolls were piping hot, super crisp and not too oily. They had crumbled chicken mixed in with the noodles, cabbage and carrot inside, and the flavor of the chicken was present in each bite.
Although the place is all about soup, there were also several fried noodle and rice dishes.
The Chicken Chow Fun was sort of fun with wide egg noodles mixed with chunks of tender chicken breast, sprouts and white and green onions. The wok-fried ingredients were coated in oil from the pan sort of like Chinese lo mein, and the browning from the wok gave it a rich hearty flavor that was pleasing.
One of the rice dishes, the Com Bo Xao stir-fried beef with lemongrass, was one of the most impressive dishes I had. The thin slices of flank steak were super tender and coated in an addictive fish sauce that was salty and briny while also being markedly sweet. The fresh pop from the sour lemongrass complemented both perfectly, so this dish hit nearly every flavor component on my palate. The sticky rice with it was also spot-on.
The atmosphere at Pho 888 is not so spot-on. This former deli and short-lived Fish of Stroh location has a clean, slick, modern feel that is a little antiseptic with run-of-the-mill tables and padded metal chairs – most of them empty – arranged in neat rows like soldiers marching in a parade covering seemingly every inch of the spacious dining room. There are Vietnamese murals – the most eye-catching was a large one of a river scene on the back wall – scattered about, an attractive counter area sort of like a sushi bar facing the kitchen, and a fish tank that broke up the monotony. But removing some of those empty tables and arranging the others so they are not so uniform would give it a cozier, homier feel.
The service needed no tweaking. During both visits, my servers were well versed on the diverse menu and I never wanted for a thing.
Restaurant: Pho 888
Address: 4916 Illinois Road, Suite 100
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol served: Beer and wine
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Kid-friendly: Yes, but no separate menu
Menu: Goi Cuon ($4), Pho Dat Biet ($8.95), Mi Kho ($7.95), Mi Tom ($7.95), Chicken Chow Fun ($6.95), Com Bo Xao ($7.95)
atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).