What the pho?

Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, a selection of herbs, rice noodles and a meat, which is usually beef or chicken. Pho options in the Des Moines area are abundant, but I narrowed in on a few Vietnamese cuisine joints near Grand View University and set out to find the best pho around. 

The first place I visited was A Dong, located downtown on High Street. A Dong is a classic Vietnamese restaurant with a very large menu, and many different forms of pho. I ordered the most basic pho, “Pho Tai.” This is a beef pho, with a choice of basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapeño and lime wedges on the side. The presentation of the pho was excellent. It was neat, and arrived quickly in sleek dishes with a charming simplicity. A Dong only offers pho in one size, and it was more than enough food at a reasonable price. I even got to take a portion home at the end of the night.

Photo by Kierin Churchman

The broth and noodles were fairly bland. However, the meat was tender and had a spicy kick to it. The herbs I chose to stir in were basil, cilantro, and jalapeño. They added a necessary zest, making the broth a little better. This pho was good, not great. It was technically authentic, as it included all the necessary ingredients, but tasted like a fairly Americanized version of a cultural dish, as it lacked flavor. 

The second restaurant I visited was Pho All Seasons, located near GV on East Euclid Avenue. Pho All Seasons has a smaller menu, as they are a pho niche restaurant, not a full Vietnamese venue. I ordered the traditional “Pho All Seasons.” This pho is a combination of brisket, meatballs, beef, onions, jalapeño, tendons, tripe and rice noodles in a beef broth. The presentation of this pho was similar to that of A Dong, with simple dishes and an orderly impression. Pho All Seasons offers pho in small and large sizes. I ordered the small, and it was, again, a good sized portion for a reasonable price.

This pho had a much more pleasing taste than A Dong’s. The broth and noodles were flavorful, with a delicious beef taste. I could taste the onion, jalapeño and herbs. It had a natural spice to it. It tasted like oriental seasoning in its purest form, sweet with a slightly fiery finish. There was also more meat than I expected, which I appreciated as it is my favorite part. It also arrived the hottest of all three pho’s from the I tried. This made me feel that it was very fresh. It tasted slightly more authentic than A Dong, but still not entirely authentic. It tasted like something I could have bought at the grocery store, instead of a product of true Vietnamese cooking.

Photo by Kierin Churchman

The third place I visited was Pho 515. This restaurant is extremely hard to come across without prior knowledge, as it is a side business of the C-Fresh Market on University Avenue. This cafe also had a slightly limited menu, as they specialize in pho. I ordered the “Pho Gau,” which includes well-done beef brisket, rice noodles, tripe, basil and onions. The presentation of this pho shop felt very authentic. It had the vibe of a true hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint with handmade cuisine. It does not necessarily have a high level of cleanliness. However, all of these aspects provided for a very convincing experience.

I ordered the small pho, but it was massive and much larger than I expected. It was definitely bang for my buck. The broth was rich and savory. There was a good mix of each ingredient, and they each seemed to jump off the spoon. The noodles had a pleasing taste, neither too bland nor too overbearing. The texture was just right. The beef tasted unique, almost as if it had been marinated specially beforehand. Every aspect of this dining experience felt truly cultural. The atmosphere, pho and customer service all provided the feel of an authentic pho restaurant in Vietnam.

Ultimately, I would conclude that A Dong is an excellent choice for Vietnamese food in general, but not necessarily pho specifically. The pho I received there was average. If you are looking for the most authentic pho and experience, I would say that Pho 515 is the right place. It provided a more rugged, natural experience. However, while Pho 515 provided the most authentic dish and experience, I personally enjoyed the taste of the pho at Pho All Seasons the most. It was not too Americanized but also not too intensely different that I couldn’t enjoy it. In my opinion, between the two extremes is best.

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