Back in 2010, Pho Thanh replaced Pho Bang in the mostly Vietnamese shopping center at 17th Avenue and Camelback. That was itself a remarkable improvement. Where the previous restaurant had suffered a long decline into messy conditions and unresponsive service, Pho Thanh came in, scrubbed the walls, improved the food, and brought new life to the space. Since then, things have gotten even better with a subsequent expansion into an adjacent storefront and the recent opening of an adjoining ice cream shop. The result is a big, bustling dining room where steaming bowls of noodle soup are delivered to an appreciative clientele.
The location is just two blocks east of the 19th Avenue / Camelback light rail station. The shopping center has no official bike rack, but there are plenty of metal gates that will work as an ad-hoc security solution. There’s no official host station in the hectic dining room. Staff will often direct customers to seats and do their best to control traffic, but it’s usually okay to seat yourself during less busy times. The service isn’t fawning, but it’s not rude either. Expect a prompt invitation to order and quick delivery of the food. After that, anything beyond water refills requires flagging down staff.
To start, tables can share cha gio, Vietnamese egg rolls that come two to an order. They’re filled with a crumbly mixture of ground pork, finely julienned vegetables, and spices. Take them to the next level but wrapping them in the companion lettuce leaves and fresh herbs served on a separate platter and then dip them in the bowl of nuoc mam cham, a sauce served with many of the foods at Pho Thanh. Banh xeo, a large folded crepe, is stuffed full of crisp bean sprouts with bits of pork and a few shrimp mixed in. It also comes with greenery and sauce, so don’t be afraid to use your hands.
Although the restaurant’s name incorporates “pho,” the expansive menu is really more of a cross section of Vietnamese food. There’s plenty of noodle soup, but there are equally large portions of the menu devoted to mi egg noodles, bun vermicelli dishes, com tam broken rice platters, bahn mi sandwiches, and even hot pots and entrees grilled at the table. There’s a lot of offal on the menu, so not everything here is for beginners. The again, it’s easy for novices to like pho filet, made with tender beef and listed somewhat confusingly among the house specials rather than the pho dishes.
The myriad varieties of pho, available with various cuts of beef as well as chicken, seafood, tofu, or vegetables, are in all cases based on an aromatic beef broth accompanied by a plate of basil, bean sprouts, lime, and jalapeños. Half of these soups are listed in the specials section. A more surprising option are the udon noodle soups. They’re made from banh canh, a type of thick noodle similar to, but not exactly the same, as Japanese udon noodles. These soups have a lighter broth and tend to rely on pork and shrimp fillings more than beef. The garnishes are the same as with pho.
Other soups display regional touches. Bun bo hue, a dish from central Vietnam, is bowl of intense broth with both beef and pork, as well as cubes of congealed pork blood. The last ingredient also plays a role in bun rieu, a noodle soup with sieved crab meat in a tomato-tinged broth. If the red cubes are too scary, they can be dodged easily. Canh chua, literally “sour soup,” is one of the few without noodles and achieves its tangy flavor as the result of the pod-like tamarind fruit that flavors the broth. Catfish or shrimp are the choices of proteins, and rice is provided in lieu of noodles.
Although Vietnamese soups are often defined by the complexity of their broths, Pho Thanh also does well with seemingly simple stir-fry dishes. A mixture of chicken and broccoli in a garlicky sauce and served with white rice is a straightforward dish for any diner looking for something completely non-threatening. The broken rice dishes are a little more adventurous. Com tam tau hu ky involves ground shrimp formed into patties and wrapped with tofu skin before being placed over short, fragmented grains or rice. Variants of the dish add grilled pork to the already lively mix of flavors.
The myriad creative uses of shrimp in Vietnamese cooking also play a role in some of the dry noodle dishes, or bun. These are made with rice vermicelli but rely on toppings, condiments, and dipping sauce rather than broth for their flavor. Bun chao tom thit nuong features shrimp wrapped around a bit of sugar cane. Just as with a lemongrass stalk, the sugar cane is not meant to be eaten but instead imparts a bit of flavor to the other ingredients it touches. The result is an example of how southeast Asian cooking often combines sweet and savory tastes in one mouthful.
Despite the abundance of organ meats and pork blood on the menu, there are also about half a dozen vegetarian dishes. Many involve tofu, but the vegetarian summer rolls, bi cuon chay, contain not only julienned vegetables, but also shreds of mock pork instead of the more familiar cubes of bean curd. The meatless rolls are accompanied by the ubiquitous nuoc mam, or fish sauce, so strict vegetarians may want to think twice before dipping. Other condiments present at every table, such as sriracha sauce and garlic-chili sauce, are more likely to be plant-based.
The restaurant is open every day except Tuesday. There’s no liquor license, but fresh squeezed orange juice or salted lemonade with club soda are some of the more refreshing beverage choices. The traditional Vietnamese desserts on the menu may be an acquired taste for customers raised on American and European sweets, but the presence of Milk Run next door expands the options with more familiar ice cream and boba tea. While the stretch of Camelback Road outside the restaurant’s doors still struggles to redevelop, it’s hard not to feel good about the success and expansion of Pho Thanh.
1702 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix AZ 85015