“That’s Ancient Town,” our server says, in answer to my question about a poster-size black-and-white photo — a bird’s-eye view of what appears to be a village frozen in time, but taken since the invention of the bicycles that cruise the busy street — hanging on one wall at Queen of Pho. She goes on to explain that Ancient Town is a historic preservation district in Hoi An, the city on Vietnam’s central coast where she grew up.
I later learned that our helpful server is Vicki Luong, half of the husband-and-wife team that opened Queen of Pho in March in Timberlyne Shopping Center. She runs the front of the house –and is often the only server in the modest 16-table eatery – while her husband, Peter Luong, does the cooking.
Peter Luong will proudly tell you that he learned to cook pho from his mom and that he has been cooking professionally for some 15 years. He owned Pho 9N9, a popular RTP lunch spot, for a few years before selling it in 2012.
All of that experience is evident in the deeply fragrant broth – made the traditional way, by simmering beef bones for 10 to 15 hours – that forms the liquid foundation for the restaurant’s dozen variations on its namesake beef noodle soup. Three sizes are offered: medium (ample for most appetites), large (for the famished) and extra-large (presumably for those who plan on stealing the bowl afterward and using it as a baby bathtub).
I order the beef combination, and I’m rewarded with a sampling of all six beef cuts listed on the menu, entangled in a thick skein of rice noodles in a steamy, grease-slicked broth redolent of star anise and spangled with chopped culantro (cilantro’s more authentically Vietnamese cousin) and slivers of onion. The customary side plate of bean sprouts, basil, jalapeño slices and lime wedge provides bright and crunchy contrast, but the broth is so satisfying I leave the bottles of hoisin and Sriracha on the table untouched.
All of the beefy bits are on the money, too, from rosy petals of rare eye of round to tender brisket and beef shank, supple strands of tendon, gently spiced meatball and impeccably clean tripe that’s only slightly chewier than the noodles.
Still not sold on tripe? Then you’ll be glad to know that you can get your pho any way you want — just brisket, say, or eye of round. Luong also turns out a first-rate rendition of bun bo Hue, pho’s fiery cousin from central Vietnam.
You can even get your pho with seafood, chicken, vegetables or tofu. (Vegetarians and vegans in particular should take note, however, that the broth is beef.) That said, if I were in the mood for chicken (or roasted pork, for that matter), I’d go for hu tieu, a chicken broth-based soup available with your choice of egg noodles or rice noodles.
Apart from pho, the menu offers a broad if not particularly deep survey of the traditional Vietnamese repertoire. Of the three listed appetizers, Saigon crispy rolls (cha gio) and Saigon fresh rolls (goi cuon) are both respectable. Fried chicken wings, simply seasoned and fried to order, can vary considerably in size but are dependably moist beneath their crisp, golden skins.
The entree selection covers all of the usual bases, from lemongrass chicken to stir-fried (or crispy fried) egg noodles to fried rice to vermicelli. The grilled pork and egg roll combination is my go-to choice for the vermicelli salad, but with a dozen options ranging from grilled shrimp to lemongrass beef, you won’t lack for choices.
Crispy fried egg noodles – your choice of protein stir-fried with a colorful medley of fresh vegetables, attractively presented on a rectangular bed of noodles that are indeed delicately crispy at the edges and soft in the middle where they soak up the juices – are another winning option.
But for my money, it’s the banh mi – served on Vietnamese-style mini-baguettes baked by Peter Luong himself – that is the star of pho’s supporting cast here. Smeared with a “special mayonnaise” and generously filled with the meat of your choice (my favorite is grilled pork) or tofu, they’re served with pickled carrot, julienne cucumber and daikon, basil, and jalapeño slices on the side, for garnishing the sandwich to your liking.
The banh mi are as much a point of pride for Peter Luong as his pho. He says the couple even toyed with the idea of naming the restaurant Queen of Banh Mi before settling on on Queen of Pho.
As for the “Queen of” part of the name, Luong concedes that the cost-saving potential of recycling part of the signage he inherited from Queen of Sheba, the Ethiopian restaurant that previously resided at this address, crossed his mind. That turned out not to be feasible, though, and Luong insists that the previous tenant’s name was not the inspiration for his own restaurant’s.
A little Google sleuthing would appear to back up his claim. Turns out there’s a street vendor in Vietnam whose banh mi have been called the country’s best. Over the 30 years since she opened her stall, she has earned the nickname Banh Mi Queen. You can find her in Hoi An, Vicki Luong’s hometown.
Queen of Pho
1129 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill
Atmosphere: casual, quaintly charming
Noise level: low
Service: attentive and eager to please
Recommended: pho, banh mi, crispy fried egg noodle, vermicelli
Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good 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.