The first time I ate at No. 1 Pho, the only people in the dining room when I walked in were two servers. It was nearly a half-hour after the restaurant opens for lunch, and I was surprised at the lack of customers – especially given the trendiness of the restaurant’s namesake Vietnamese beef noodle soup, and its high-profile location in a new Whole Foods Market-anchored shopping center in West Cary.
Frankly, I wondered if they hadn’t gotten their act together yet. At the time, No. 1 Pho only had been open a few weeks – just shy of my self-imposed rule of allowing a new restaurant at least a month to iron out the wrinkles before paying it a first visit. But I was craving pho, so I did what I always do when I find myself bending that rule: I went ahead and ordered, with the proviso that if it wasn’t up to snuff I’d give the restaurant a mulligan.
Then, as I was waiting for my pho, the lunch rush hit. By noon, those two servers were scrambling to keep up with a nearly full dining room. Clearly, No. 1 Pho had no problem attracting a following.
It also became obvious, once my pho arrived, that this place didn’t need a mulligan. Wafting up from a grease-slicked broth spangled with chopped scallions, cilantro, slivers of onion and rosy petals of rare eye of round, a beefy cloud of steam subtly perfumed with ginger and star anise promised a deeply satisfying broth that can only come from beef bones simmering for hours. The taste delivered fully on that promise, and a healthy skein of rice noodles in the bottom of the bowl ensured that every aspect of my craving was satisfied.
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Subsequent visits reinforced that first impression, as I slurped my way across a menu that includes just about every variation on the pho theme you can think of. Bun bo Hue, pho’s famously fiery cousin, serves up noodles that are a little thicker than traditional pho noodles in a chile-reddened broth that, notwithstanding its color, is not as spicy as some.
An entire section of the menu is devoted to hu tieu, a more distant relative on the Vietnamese noodle soup family tree. Ramen fans will recognize the milky, savory-sweet pork broth that is the foundation of these soups, which come with add-in combinations ranging from a fairly straightforward seafood with egg noodles to an extravaganza in a bowl: shrimp, sliced pork, ground pork, quail egg and two kinds of noodle.
Those interested in exploring territory beyond pho and its soupy kin will find ample rewards in an offering that covers most of the familiar bases, and springs a few delightful surprises. Under the appetizer heading you’ll find pretty-as-a-picture goi cuon (summer rolls, with a pastel patchwork of shrimp, lettuce and basil showing through their translucent wrappers) and the best crispy spring rolls (cha gio) around.
Don’t be misled by the name of the banh mi ca ri ga that you’ll also find under the appetizer heading. This is not the sandwich that comes to mind when most of us hear the words “banh mi” (which, in its purest sense, simply means “bread”). In this case, the term refers to the two mini-baguettes that are served alongside a bowl of Vietnamese chicken curry (bone-in, skin on, along with chunks of taro root in a mild curry whose flavor is somewhere between Indian and Thai). Presumably, the dish is listed here because it’s meant to be a shared appetizer. It also makes a light but rustically satisfying meal for one.
(Note: The sandwich form of banh mi was just recently added to the offering. If it still isn’t listed on the menu – it wasn’t last time I checked – just ask.)
Vietnamese rice (com) and rice vermicelli (bun) dishes are both well-represented, with all the usual suspects, from lemongrass chicken to grilled pork chop among the nearly two dozen options. Vermicelli fans in particular should check out a separate section labeled “Banh Hoi.” In this lavish DIY lettuce wraps presentation, the vermicelli takes the form of rolled ringlets (which the menu confusingly calls a crepe), sized just right to roll up in a lettuce leaf, along with lightly pickled carrots, cucumbers, herbs and your choice of protein. Go ahead and splurge on the grilled shrimp, grilled pork and cha gio combination. And be prepared to share some of the feast.
Bahn cuon (“shredded pork and grilled onion roll”) is another shareable curveball of a dish. “Shredded pork” turns out to be half-moon slices of a fine-textured sausage that looks like bologna but is milder and a touch sweet). The “onion roll” presumably refers to a stretchy free-form dumpling (for want of a better word) that’s made of tapioca and rice flour and flecked with wood ear mushrooms. If you’re an adventurous diner looking for a changeup, this is a pitch you’ll want to swing at.
If my first visit to No. 1 Pho was initially surprising, by the time I’d eaten there a few times, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the restaurant is owned by a family with more than two decades of experience in the business. The Nguyens moved here from New York, where they previously owned a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown since the late ’80s. They sold that restaurant to move to a sunnier clime and opened No. 1 Pho last summer.
Their new restaurant is a simply furnished but cheerily welcoming space where – like the food – attention is paid to the smallest details, right down to the matching condiment bottles on each table. You’ll find the expected hoisin, Sriracha and ground chile paste in those bottles, but no fish sauce.
Ask managing partner Kate Nguyen (her mother Susan Nguyen and her husband Tien Phan both work in the kitchen) why not, and she’ll explain that fish sauce is like salt in Vietnamese cuisine, and then she’ll proudly tell you that that they’re confident in their seasoning of dishes. She adds that fish sauce is available on request, but that you probably won’t need it. She’s right.
5025 Arco St., Cary
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual, cheerily welcoming
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: eager to please, generally attentive but can get overwhelmed
Recommended: cha gio, goi cuon, pho, hu tieu, banh hoi
Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Closed Wednesday.
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.