A new pho restaurant seems to sprout every month in Anchorage. Some might call it overkill or worse, a passing trend. I am not one of them. In a town that is dark half the year and cold more than half, the easy availability of an oversized bowl of hot, long-simmered soup teeming with noodles is something that I will never, ever complain about. So when a new contender in this competitive culinary field opened up in South Anchorage -- Pho Bistro -- I was eager to try it.
The restaurant is in a uniquely inconvenient strip-mall just south of Sportsman's Warehouse and when my friend and I arrived at 1 p.m., the restaurant was empty -- not usually a good sign. However, the dining room was clean and bright with attractive Asian accents and a spectacular fish tank in the back.
Seating and service were pleasant and prompt which was unsurprising since we were the only customers. The menu is short and straightforward, but the cuisine's most crave-able classics were all represented. Appetizers are limited to wings, egg rolls, spring rolls and dumplings. There are six varieties of pho, four or five vermicelli (bun) dishes and a handful of rice platters offering mostly pork and beef options.
It was a blustery spring day, so we each ordered pho with spring rolls ($4.95) to start. The rolls were a bit bland, with mild pork slices and slightly chewy shrimp. However, they were pleasantly minty and tasted very fresh. The wrappers were moist and pliant -- recently rolled, if not made to order.
My companion chose the free-range chicken noodle soup ($11.95). Simply presented with slices of lean white meat floating on top, it hit the spot. "It's mild, lovely and savory," my friend said. "A very comforting soup." I found the broth to have a note of sweetness, which I enjoyed, though I prefer a heavier hand with the seasoning. A touch more salt would have gone a long way. Regardless, it is undoubtedly what I will be craving when I catch my next cold.
I ordered the spicy beef noodle special ($12.95), and our waiter assured me that the heat level lives up to its name. "How hot from 1 to 10?" he asked. I impulsively started with a 7, but then cooler heads prevailed. I requested a 5, knowing I could amp up the heat afterwards. It was a good decision -- the spice was warming and lingering but didn't cause my mascara to run. Braver souls might wish to turn it up a notch. For me, it was the star of the meal -- rich and fragrant with ample slices of lean beef with a round, spaghetti-like noodle.
We left feeling fortified against the snow that was beginning to drift depressingly down.
A week later, I returned with my daughter for an early dinner. Once again, the restaurant was empty. We shared an order of dumplings ($5.95), which, while tasty and crisp, were unmemorable.
My daughter opted for the chicken soup and pronounced it "flavorful but light." An enthusiastic and experienced consumer of pho, she agreed with me that it could have used more noodles.
My stir-fried lemongrass beef vermicelli ($10.95) consisted of sweet and savory bites of meat set upon a crispy fresh salad of cucumbers, lettuce, mint, shredded carrot, ground peanuts and thin rice noodles. The dish is served on the dry side and invites the liberal use of the sauces that accompany it: one dark and sweet, one siracha-like chili sauce and tangy fish sauce. I also stole my daughter's lime to brighten the flavor slightly. My only complaint was that the proportion of beef to salad was a little light.
One problem Pho Bistro faces against its competition is portion-size and value. Eaters accustomed to the oversized bowls found in other restaurants might be disappointed at the modest bowls found here. Especially when you consider that the menu prices are comparable.
The dishes at Pho Bistro were fragrant, fresh and well-executed -- warming comfort food. It's a worthy addition to the neighborhood. I just hope the neighbors notice.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent