When I first heard of Pho-89, I was inclined to think that we had become so inundated with pho restaurants that people had resorted to simply numbering them. But Pho #1 opened only a few years ago in the Northway Mall, and I knew that we hadn't gotten to 89 that quickly. I was told that there is no particular reason behind the name; it just sounded good.
Pho-89 is a large, pleasant space located in Midtown, great for big groups or families. I met three of my girlfriends and a server immediately came to the table. She poured waters and had our drink order before we had fully settled into our seats. Generally, service in family-style restaurants like this one is a little lax - not so at Pho-89.
Our Thai iced coffees ($4) and appetizer sampler ($14.95) were on the table in no time. I made a mental note to come here when I am ravenously hungry and precious minutes count. It also helps that the menu, rather than being page upon page of pho iterations and having entire sections dedicated to Chinese and Thai fare, is a mere 59 items long. (Pho-59, that has a nice ring to it.)
Pho, curry and stir-fry get about equal billing, with some noodle dishes, salads and rice to round it out. The sampler platter, a combination of any four of the appetizers, is a nice touch. Ours arrived with fresh spring rolls, fried tofu, steamed pot stickers and chicken wings ($8.95 each if ordered individually), which divided perfectly among four people. I especially liked the wings, crackle-glazed with chili sauce and deliciously deep-fried.
My girlfriend got a classic beef brisket pho ($9.95) and I ordered the pad-zee-ew ($9.95), a stir-fried noodle dish with broccoli. Noodles are of paramount importance. They must be tender yet resilient, subtly flavored but also a vehicle for flavor and must withstand high temperatures while remaining silky under pressure -- not unlike a food writer on deadline.
The robust noodles in the stir-fry held up well to the thick stalks of broccoli and almost gravy-like sauce. The pho noodles were dainty strands, trapping bits of beef and cilantro with each forkful like a savory web. The broth left something to be desired; I didn't get that subdued delicacy of depth that only comes from hours of inspired simmering. All was well once the sriracha, soy sauce and fish sauce was added, but I prefer a simple, well-seasoned soup.
On my next visit, I ordered the cream cheese wontons ($8.95) by accident. I thought "fried pot stickers" and said "wontons," but my mouth clearly knew what it was doing because the wontons were fantastic. Nowhere in the history of Southeast Asia is cream cheese a native ingredient, but authenticity be damned. Incongruity tastes delicious.
I also ordered the papaya salad ($9.95) and a bowl of panang curry with pork ($10.95) after I had polished off the appetizer by myself. The curry sparkled with kaffir lime, a citrusy, grassy top-note that made the coconut milk sing. But when I poured the curry over the rice, the sauce was disappointingly thin. It slid right over the rice to the bottom of the bowl, where it did no one any good at all. Still, the flavor was there, so I simply scooped up the rice, dipped it in the curry and ate it that way.
If the coconut milk was singing, the papaya salad was on fire, trying to convert the masses. It is a dish that lives in obscurity, waiting for its big break, the moment when it will supersede bacon and cupcakes as the newest "it" food. This papaya salad had everything going: plenty of searing chili, a hint of palm sugar, a breeze of lime to cool off the tongue, aromatic fish sauce and julienned threads of green papaya.
This is another instance when the brain and mouth disagree; the mouth insists you stop eating at once and the pleasure center in your brain overrides. I took most of it home and nibbled on it all evening, stashing it in the fridge in between bites to get that deceptive chill that precedes the onslaught of heat.
Pho-89 is a rather accurate grade of itself, a B-plus with some work to do before reaching a perfect score. It's a solid, well-concerted effort that has moments of brilliance.
By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent