In Search of Pho (and Bun Bo Hue Too) | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

In Search of Pho (and Bun Bo Hue Too) 

In the Neighborhood

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Pho Hoa

4925 N. Broadway


With all the pho joints around Argyle, there's always the nagging thought that no matter which one you choose there's another serving a subtler, more aromatic bowl of the Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Among phoficionados such places rise and fall in favor continuously, but for almost a year now Pho Hoa, tucked inside a Broadway strip mall along a tight parking lot in perpetual gridlock, has been dishing out one of my favorites. Available in a relatively limited 20 combinations, the potent broth gives off a harmonic perfume of ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. Noodles are fresh, not precooked, and each bowl is dosed with ample portions of meat. The pho list is broken into three categories: "For the Beginner," offering lean cuts of steak, brisket, or meatballs; "A Little Bit of Fat," which augments those cuts with flank steak, tripe, or fatty brisket; and third and largest, "Adventurer's Choice," featuring still fattier cuts and tendon, plus a version with chicken broth. All are accompanied by the usual garnishes--fresh lime, jalapeno, mint leaves, and bean sprouts--and if you're feeling heroic you can request a small bowl of luxuriant golden fat to drizzle on top. Fruit shakes, coffee drinks, and several varieties of che, the popular pudding-type sweet, fill out the menu. --Mike Sula

Tank Noodle

4955 N. Broadway


Tackling the 200-plus-item menu can be intimidating for anyone not familiar with Vietnamese food, but I can't think of a better place to explore the cuisine than Tank noodle. To start with, the pho may well be the best in the city. Some folks are put off by the soup's strength, but it's what draws me in. Liberally seasoned with aromatic spices like cinnamon and star anise, the beef broth here doesn't need anything more than a tiny squeeze of lime, a few tears of cilantro, and a slice of jalapeno--resist the impulse to tap into the hoisin and Sriracha. My favorite dish at Tank is mi bho kho (beef stew over egg noodles): it's rich and chock-full of tender stewed beef, with flavor so concentrated it's almost too much to bear. The bun bo hue (vermicelli noodles in broth) gets its simultaneous mildness and mild funkiness from cubes of jellied pig's blood. But word is well-meaning staff have been withholding the stuff--if you want it ask for it, just to be on the safe side. --Kristina Meyer

Dong Thanh

4925 N. Broadway


Bun bo hue won't cure cancer, but this extremely nourishing bowl of rice vermicelli and beef broth--similar to pho but not as complex--is a fine palliative for the common cold or a crushing hangover. Named for the Vietnamese city of its origin, it's a fiery and slightly sweet brew with green onions, chives, cilantro, a chewy pig's knuckle, and bobbing silky cubes of congealed pig's blood. It's served with raw shredded cabbage, which lends an extra element of texture, along with the typical garnishes for pho--fresh chiles, mint leaves, bean sprouts, and limes. At Dong Thanh flexibility is the rule, as owners gamely offer to adjust spice levels or put any number of protein combinations into play; choices include seafood, chicken, pork skin, and barbecued duck. The array of liquid garnishes on each table--black vinegar, chile, fish, soy, and "rooster" sauces, pickled chiles, and garlic oil--further ensures that no two bowls are completely alike. --Mike Sula

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.

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