Pho — which rhymes with duh, not woe — is the national dish of Vietnam, the Asian version of grandma's noodle soup (but substitute chicken with beef in most cases). A steaming bowl of rice noodles swimming in delicious beef broth and topped with various cuts of meat, it's the ultimate comfort food: filling, warming, salty and savory and satisfying on multiple levels.
At Pho Vi Hoa in Los Altos, pho is the main attraction. The nine-year-old, family-run restaurant features more than 15 variations of the traditional soup, made with flank steak, brisket, meatballs, tripe, eye round or tendon. Standard accompaniments include sliced serrano peppers, bean sprouts, Thai basil and lemon wedges, and you customize your dish with whatever condiment catches your fancy: soy sauce, hoisin, chili paste or sriracha (the Thai hot sauce with a rooster on the label).
True to its name, the restaurant dedicates a full third of its menu to pho, divided into lean, regular and meat combinations. You can also create your own mix. The pho comes in two sizes: large and small, although the "small" would easily placate all but the most demanding appetites. A small bowl of steaming pho noodles and meat is $6.85; add $1 for the large version.
Though my companions and I ordered several different variations, there is little discernible difference in the overall flavor, whether you order P-4 (brisket), P-7 (eye round and flank steak) or P-14 (flank, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatballs). All are tasty, with a rich beefy aroma and amber-colored broth loaded with noodles. The bottom line: The fattier the cut of meat, the tastier the soup.
Pho Vi Hoa offers some variations on the theme, with seafood noodle soups and vegetarian versions. It also has a large selection of grilled meat, chicken, shrimp or beef mixed with vegetables and served over steamed rice. Larger versions are offered at dinner, though rice must be ordered separately.
The menu also features chow mein, fried rice and rice noodle bowls: thick noodles topped with shrimp, pork, chicken or beef atop a layer of diced cucumbers, sprouts and lettuce. The grilled pork and shrimp version included two medium shrimp and several thin-cut slices of dry meat. This is where all those condiments came in handy, since this meal would have been flavorless without some creative additions.
An appetizer of fried egg rolls ($3.95 for two) was light and tasty, although the spring rolls ($4.15 for two) were dry and accompanied by a thick sauce that tasted like mildly diluted peanut butter, with no nuance of any other flavors. The restaurant offers a small selection of beer and wine, along with some more unusual beverages like plum soda, coconut milk and soybean drink. The taro with pearl ($3.50) was undrinkable: sickly sweet, chalky and a frightening shade of lavender. Thai iced tea ($3), served with no ice, also tasted chalky and unpleasant.
The restaurant is spacious, with booths lining the walls and long tables that can be shared during the lunch rush. Service tends to be prompt but perfunctory. The servers happily took our orders and food arrived quickly, but no one returned to fill our water glasses or explain that we needed to pay at the cash register.
The bottom line? Focus on what Pho Vi Hoa does best: The restaurant shines when it comes to pho. The soups are savory and satisfying, and deliver a filling meal loaded with flavor.
Pho Vi Hoa
4546 El Camino Real, Suite A12
Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: adjacent lot
Alcohol: beer, wine
Wheelchair access: yes
Outdoor seating: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: average
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent