It's not your imagination: Ph? joints really have been replicating like rabbits in the spring. A decade or so ago, ph? had yet to take up residence in our collective culinary consciousness. Now, by some accounts, there are more than 50 ph? restaurants in San Diego, and The New York Times recognized our city as one of the "national hot spots of Viet cuisine" and a place to get "mind-numbingly good pho."
But, somehow, somewhere along the way, ph? overshot the runway. Perhaps more than any other dish or cuisine, we've come to see ph? as nearly synonymous with Vietnamese food. Few Americans could name another Vietnamese dish. It's thus somewhat odd—if not downright courageous—that Nh? Ý Restaurant (4712 El Cajon Blvd., Suite A, in City Heights) doesn't even have ph? on its menu.
That's why instead of going to Nh? Ý for ph?, I went for its spicy central Vietnamese cousin, bún bò huê. Like ph?, bún bò huê is a beef-noodle soup with different cuts of beef (and, at Nh? Ý, cubes of blood cake and bits of pig's foot). But the vermicelli noodles are thicker and rounder than the ph? noodles, and the broth is infused with lemongrass. The flavor profile is balanced between sour, salty and sweet notes with a spicy element—rare in most Vietnamese cooking—that's characteristic of central Vietnamese cuisine. It's a heady and addictive brew.
Another good offering at Nh? Ý is bánh canh tôm cua, a thick Vietnamese udon-style noodle soup with a shrimp broth and featuring sweet crabmeat. Like bún bò huê, bánh canh tôm cua is finished with chile. For many Vietnamese, this is a nostalgic dish epitomizing comfort food. For me, it's the beguiling sweetness of the seafood that's the dish's leading pleasure.
The most common Vietnamese appetizer is g?i cu?n, spring—or, sometimes, summer—rolls. The most typical version in America includes shrimp, pork, lettuce, mint and noodles. Grilled meat rolls are a common option. The best version at NNh? Ý is bì cu?n with shredded pork meat and skin with the textural contrast of roasted rice powder. The dish is served with n??c ch?m (fish sauce, lime, garlic, sugar and chilies).
One of the more exotic dishes at Nh? Ý is bánh xèo, a fried, turmeric-laced rice-flour crepe filled with shrimp, fatty pork slivers, onions and bean sprouts. It's a dish that comes to the table looking like an omelet but is ever so much more fun. It's fried and crispy, and you eat it by picking it up in a piece of lettuce and dipping it in the n??c ch?m. That presses a sweet button, too. What's not to like?
It's probably too much to ask to expect bún bò hu? joints and bánh xèo houses to displace yesterday's fad tomorrow. We love our ph?, yes, but we still can't pronounce it. Still, who among us, a decade ago, could have predicted the explosion of ph? on our culinary scene? So, stranger things have already happened.