Pho XO for suprisingly elegant pho
The pho at Pho XO is made the traditional way, by simmering beef and beef bones for hours to extract every last scintilla of flavor. The bones also contribute collagen, the magic ingredient that gives the best renditions of this classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup their lip-smacking mouth feel.
For all its richness, though, the broth at Pho XO is more refined than most, the notes of anise and other spices more restrained. The result is a bowl of pho that, while fulfilling its traditional role as a soul-satisfying meal in itself, is surprisingly elegant.
In short, the namesake specialty at Pho XO lives up to the second half of its name: XO, a term borrowed from the French cognac trade that has come to denote premium quality and refinement in Asia.
That applies to everything in the bowl, not just the broth. Those petal-thin slices of beef in the pho tai are filet mignon, and they’re still a rosy pink when the bowl lands on your table. Pho tai is one of nine variations on the theme ranging from pho ga (white meat chicken) to the classic beefeater’s extravaganza, pho dac biet — all featuring that elegant, cilantro- and scallion-spangled broth over rice noodles, and all accompanied by the customary side plate of bean sprouts, fresh basil, jalapeño slices and lime wedge.
But Pho XO is by no means a one-trick pony. The menu offers a broad sampling of the Vietnamese repertoire, including the familiar variations on the themes of vermicelli, rice dishes and banh mi, as well as house specials such as kho to, a savory-sweet delight featuring caramelized catfish filet cooked in a clay pot. A separate section is devoted to vegetarian fare, with half a dozen options ranging from crispy clay pot rice to an entree soup with lotus, mushrooms and tofu.
Regardless whether you opt for a familiar favorite or decide to try something new, odds are you’ll come up with a winner. Play it safe with exemplary fresh shrimp rolls (goi cuon), the pastels of pink shellfish and green cucumber and lettuce visible through supple, translucent wrappers. Or go bold with nem nuong, which replaces the shrimp with savory, oval-shaped pork meatballs about the size of your pinkie, sliced thin and seared to order.
If you like Thai som tam, you’ll want to give its Vietnamese cousin, goi du du, a try. The salad is a colorful medley of julienne green papaya, haricots verts (ordinary green bean just won’t do if your restaurant has XO in its name), tomatoes and cucumber in a dressing that leans a little more to fish sauce than the Thai version. It’s topped with toasted peanuts and your choice of shrimp, chicken or pork.
Cha ram (aka cha gio) are very good, too, the shatter-crisp spring rolls filled with your choice of shrimp and pork or shredded fresh veggies. They’re served three to an order with sweet chile dipping sauce as an appetizer.
Be advised, however, that you also get a spring roll with an entree vermicelli order, along with your choice of protein in an elegant deconstructed salad of noodles, fresh vegetables, basil and crushed peanuts. Try the charbroiled pork or chicken with lemongrass vermicelli, or double down on the spring rolls with bun cha ram.
Under the House Specials heading, you’ll find a small treasure trove of dishes seldom seen hereabouts. In addition to the kho to, you’ll discover duoi bo cu sen (oxtail lotus soup), banh canh cua tom (shrimp and crabmeat plus fresh rice noodles as thick as udon in a chicken broth), and com bo luc lac (nicknamed “shaking beef” for the rapid tossing of the filet mignon in a wok with garlic and spices). There’s also cari de, Vietnamese goat curry — and the best goat dish I’ve had in recent memory.
If you’re just looking for a light bite or a quick lunch, banh mi are a deservedly popular option. Offered with your choice of grilled chicken, grilled pork, barbecue beef, or roasted pork belly, the sandwich comes so close to the mark — baguette, filling and garnish are all on point — that it took me a minute to put my finger on what’s missing: mayo or paté. Both are traditional, and either would transform a slightly too dry sandwich into a bulls-eye.
I have absolutely no quibbles with Pho XO’s shareable dessert presentation of mango with sticky rice. I’ve ordered it twice so far, and both times the mango was perfectly ripe. On the first occasion, the rice was subtly flavored with (and dyed a pale green by) the juice of fresh pandan leaf, a traditional embellishment I’ve never before seen in these parts. (There’s that XO touch again). A week later, Thai tea had transformed the color of the rice to a deep sienna, and given it an altogether different flavor.
Pho XO’s modest decor is typical of the restaurant’s strip mall location, though efforts have clearly been made to create a suitable backdrop for the food. A small rock waterfall greets you just inside the door, and lots of tropical greenery (including a live orchid mounted on one wall, its roots dangling nearly to the floor) reinforce the mood.
It’s a pleasant setting, but it doesn’t upstage the food. Nor should it. It’s the food, after all, that gets the XO designation.
10290 Chapel Hill Road, Morrisville
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casual and colorful with tropical accents
Noise level: low
Service: friendly, variably experienced
Recommended: pho, pork meatball fresh roll, papaya salad, goat curry, mango with sticky rice
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
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: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.