Pho 919 had been open for more than a year when I stumbled across it for the first time. And I’ll confess that, when I peeked into the storefront windows of the Morrisville strip mall where the restaurant opened in October 2014, what I saw – a brightly lit dining room virtually unchanged since the departure of the previous tenant, a burger joint with a ’50s retro motif – wasn’t particularly enticing.
Still, if 20-plus years of sticking my nose into unlikely places have taught me anything, it’s that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Even if that cover consists of sparkly booth upholstery, mostly bare walls and black-and-white linoleum tile floors. So I stuck my nose in.
Am I ever glad I did. The food here will make you quickly forget about the setting. The restaurant’s namesake beef noodle soup is the star of the show, the broth a deceptively translucent, complex brew made from long-simmered bones and subtly redolent of star anise and ginger. Shimmering with beads of fat and spangled with chopped cilantro, the soup is ladled over an ample skein of rice noodles in a cavernous bowl and generously topped with your choice of protein.
All the usual beef suspects are available, from the justifiably popular rare steak (which arrives as petal-thin, properly rosy slices that gradually brown with the heat of the soup) to the more, shall we say, exotic tripe (which, for those who are interested, is irreproachably clean). My go-to order is the classic pho dac biet, which includes both steak and tripe, as well as tender tatters of well-done brisket and thick slices of savory, springy-textured meatballs.
Owner Karen Nguyen, a native of Vietnam who grew up on the West Coast, is justifiably proud of her pho, and is as sparing with the traditional side plate of garnishes – a small wedge of lime, a couple of jalapeño slices, a few bean sprouts and fresh basil leaves – as she is generous with the soup itself. She’ll provide more garnish for a small surcharge, but I think she’s right: Pho this good doesn’t need much tweaking.
Nguyen is also a bit of a stickler about authenticity. She insists that pho is by definition made exclusively with beef broth, and that, say, chicken “pho” (as it’s called in some restaurants) that’s made with chicken broth is not, properly speaking, pho. That’s why every pho variation on the menu — chicken, shrimp, even tofu — is made with beef broth.
Even so, vegetarians will be gratified to know that there is in fact a version of the noodle soup made with a vegetable broth. It’s called soup chay rau cai (a spicy variation called soup chay cay is also available), and you’ll find it in a separate section of the menu devoted to vegetarian fare.
Good as it is, pho is by no means the only attraction at Pho 919. An order of cha gio gets you a shareable starter of four crisp Vietnamese egg rolls, served with traditional fixings for wrapping them in lettuce leaves. Goi cuon, pork- and shrimp-filled spring rolls, in translucent fresh rice paper wrappers, are exemplary – and huge. Same goes for a beef variation called bo cuon.
Nor will you have any trouble finding rewarding entree alternatives to a giant bowl of steaming hot soup – which, let’s face it, even fans of pho aren’t always in the mood for.
Especially on a hot summer day, when you may opt instead to find relief from the swelter under the vermicelli heading. Nine variations on the salad-and-rice-noodle-bowl-in-one theme are offered, with topping options roaming the barnyard from beef to pork to chicken, with a couple of excursions to the shore for shrimp. You certainly won’t go wrong with either of the variations I’ve tried: the roast pork and egg roll combo; and shrimp, which serves up a dozen bamboo-skewered jumbos, laid in neat rows across the rim of the bowl.
Pan-fried lemongrass pork chops, served with steamed rice, are toothsome if a little overcooked by modern Western standards. But you’re not likely to find fault with the sweet, meaty morsels in a pork fried rice that will spoil you for the standard Chinese takeout version.
Service is generally solid, though the small staff can get overwhelmed when the dining room gets busy. And the decor is clearly the result of a shoestring budget. But the food is consistently rewarding – an especially impressive feat, given that Pho 919 is Karen Nguyen’s first restaurant. No doubt her mom would be proud.
3504 Davis Drive, Morrisville; 919-377-0318
Atmosphere: ’50s retro, inherited from previous tenant
Noise level: moderate
Service: generally solid, can get overwhelmed
Recommended: pho, cha gio, goi cuon, bo cuon, vermicelli
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: not accepted
Other: no alcohol; 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.