One of the fairly substantial culinary changes I’ve seen over the last 20 years or so is that Vietnamese cuisine has changed from a fairly niche ethnic cuisine limited to areas with high Southeast Asian populations, to a relatively common cuisine that is enjoyed by quite a large number of Americans of all ethnicities: it’s pretty common now for people to know about phở, that wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup, as well as several other Vietnamese dishes, like the bánh mì sandwich. And heck, even Vietnamese-inspired condiments like nước mắm and Sriracha sauce (I know, it’s at least as much Thai as Vietnamese in origin…) are now fairly common: we even have a bottle of Sriracha in the fridge here at work in New Hampshire. But it’s still somewhat of an urban cuisine, so I don’t get to enjoy a good bowl of phở unless I’m traveling. But one of my recent trips to DC let me visit an old favorite: Pho 75 in Arlington, between the Courthouse and Rossyln Metro stations.
Pho 75 is a favorite of mine, since it’s basically the place I was introduced to Vietnamese food. Dialing the wayback machine to 1992, when I was a freshman in college, I went to visit my brother in DC, and one of the places he took me was to Rosslyn to a strip mall that he called the “Gourmet Ghetto” (which has been host to many other great restaurants, including both Ray’s the Steaks and Ray’s Hell Burger, to name two), to discover phở (and later in that trip, he took me out to Eden Center in Falls Church, which was, and still is, a major Vietnamese retail and dining center). It was my first time trying phở, and while at that time I thought some of the ingredients (tendon, tripe, etc) a bit exotic, and menu a bit baffling, I ended up loving the experience, and a trip to Pho 75 has been a frequent component of my trips to Arlington ever since… so I’ve been a sporadic customer of Pho 75 for over 20 years.
While many, many things have changed in Arlington, and the culinary scene is almost entirely changed, Pho 75 is one of the few of the places I would visit in the 90s that’s still there (oh, there are a few others, like Whitlow’s, Hard Times Cafe, and Faccia Luna still being mostly unchanged). In any case, aside from a surprisingly small increase in prices since I started going in ’92, the experience at Pho 75 is basically the same as it was then. Like most Vietnamese restaurants, the restaurant is set up for efficiency, with a fairly spartan interior with all the ambiance of an office supply store, but with long communal tables for family-style seating. And unlike a lot of phở joints, the menu here is entirely phở: no bánh mì and no bún chả giò, just phở with all the standard beef varieties (if you want phở ga, the chicken variety, it’s best to head up to the above-mentioned Eden Center to Pho Xe Lua).
But they are are extremely efficient. After settling on my now-standard phở tái nạm gần sạch (with rare beef, well-done brisket, and tendon) with a side of hanh dam (vinegared sliced white onion), I ordered, and in 3 minutes flat had a fresh bowl of phở and the requisite plate of sprouts, basil, lime, and peppers. And indeed, with my first sip of broth, I can tell you, Pho 75 is still, after slinging bowls of phở since the 80s, one of the best phở joints I’ve been to. The broth is incredibly rich and flavorful, the noodles cooked just to the point of perfection, the rare beef actually rare, the brisket nice and flavorful, and the tendon generously applied in rich, well-butchered chunks. This is pretty much exactly the soup that got me hooked back in 1992.
So, in an Arlington culinary seen that’s seen much change, most of it for the better, the venerable Pho 75 remains one of the DC areas better places to score a good bowl of phở. Add in efficient service (although the place can get very, very busy during the weekday lunch rush) and good prices, and it’s still a winner.