The Pho at Pho Super 9, a deceptively unassuming eatery that opened in April in a North Raleigh strip mall, is made by simmering beef and beef bones for eight hours or more, until every last scintilla of flavor is extracted. It’s a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that’s often abridged these days.
But the payoff is a bonanza of marrow-deep flavor and supple texture that, as devotees of this classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup will tell you, no amount of shortcutting or culinary sleight of hand can duplicate.
Even the most finicky fans won’t be disappointed by Pho Super 9’s rendition, an elixir gently redolent of ginger and star anise, its surface spangled with chopped scallions and glistening beads of rendered fat. Given substance by last-minute additions of rice noodles and the beef cut of your choice (all the traditional options, from earthy tripe to delicate rosy petals of steak), it’s thoroughly satisfying just as it is.
But don’t overlook the side plate of garnishes, a generous pile of bean sprouts, basil, jalapeños and lime wedges that you can add to the soup to your taste. When it’s available, the plate also includes a long, saw-toothed leaf of culantro, an herb whose flavor is similar to cilantro.
The presence of the more traditional culantro, rather than the more readily available cilantro that’s usually substituted, is a telltale sign of what distinguishes Pho Super 9. Like the long-simmered beef broth, it’s evidence of owner/chef Quan Tran’s dedicated pursuit of authenticity.
That dedication is by no means limited to the restaurant’s namesake dish. Order the steamed striped bass in ginger sauce, and you’ll get the whole fish, carpeted in a tweedy tapestry of scallions, fine julienne carrots and onion, slivers of ginger root and a scattering of basil and cilantro.
You get a side plate of herbs with this one, too. And a whole package of rice paper wrappers, accompanied by a clever device for softening them in warm water before using them to wrap morsels of fish and herbs and enjoying the dish in the traditional Vietnamese way.
Tran, a veteran restaurateur who opened the popular RTP lunch spot Pho 9n9 (which he has since sold), and before that was a partner in Pho Cali, has clearly opted to go unapologetically authentic this time around. Even to the point of including diếp cá (aka fish mint), an herb that will no doubt be an acquired taste for most Western palates, on the side plate that accompanies the savory Vietnamese crêpe, bánh xèo.
I confess that I haven’t yet acquired that particular taste. Minus the diếp cá, though, I found the lacy-crusted shrimp- and vegetable-studded crêpe to be among the best I’ve ever had.
Tran turns out a first-rate clay pot fish, too, a rustic home-style dish featuring catfish filets braised in a savory-sweet caramel sauce. His vermicelli bowl, topped with barbecued pork and Vietnamese egg roll, is another winning option. Báhn mi, Vietnamese baguette sandwiches with half a dozen filling options ranging from tofu to grilled ground pork, will hit the spot for anyone with a light appetite.
Disappointments are few, and some of those might be chalked up to a disconnect between native authenticity and nonnative expectations. Authentic or not, the barbecued quail appetizer is overcooked by American standards. An entree offering of lemon beef salad comes off as surprisingly bland.
In the case of the hu tieu, (a chicken-broth variation on the Pho theme) I was served recently, I suspect that the kitchen wasn’t at fault for the skimpy side plate that accompanied the soup. Side plates are sometimes assembled by the wait staff, who are widely variable in terms of experience and familiarity with the cuisine.
If the fortune gods are smiling on you, you’ll be waited on by Tran’s solicitous wife, Nhanh. If not, you can always summon her – or the couple’s equally obliging son and the restaurant’s general manager, Duy – for assistance. That includes questions about ingredients, or how to use that contraption for soaking rice paper wrappers.
Ask Duy Tran about the “9” in the restaurant’s name, and he’ll explain that the number is considered to be especially lucky in Vietnamese culture. “It’s like seven in America,” he’ll tell you, adding that the number is commonly found in the names of Vietnamese restaurants.
As for whether the Pho deserves its “Super” billing, well, you shouldn’t have any problem establishing that for yourself.