The unassuming Tempe Towne Plaza shopping center has long been home to restaurants serving foods from all over the globe. Indian, Somali, pizza — all those cuisines and more are crammed into this strip mall, which is just a block north of the University / Rural light rail station. The Vietnamese food niche here is filled by Pho Nhat, or maybe it’s just Nhat, given that the word “Pho” is part of the restaurant’s name on the menus but not on the outside sign. Let’s just call it (Pho) Nhat and acknowledge that its speciality is indeed pho, the rice noodle soup of Hanoi.
If approaching from the station, turn right just after Eight Street, walking around the smaller buildings facing Rural to find the larger shopping center behind them. There’s plenty of natural light inside due to large, arched windows. The decor is simple and sparse, just like the shopping center itself, which is beginning to look out of place amid the dense development occurring across the street on the campus of Arizona State University, as well as the new residential buildings to the south. A bike rack is found in a highly visible location in the parking lot just outside the restaurant’s doors.
Appetizers include several varieties of goi cuon, cold spring rolls (sometimes referred to as summer rolls) prepared with rice wrappers and served with peanut sauce. Pho Nhat’s sauce is darker and spicier than at many other Vietnamese restaurant around town. The rolls come with shrimp, BBQ pork, or both inside. Cha gio are fried egg rolls, more similar to their counterparts at American Chinese and Thai restaurants. These come hot from the fryer and contain a ground meat filling rather than the julienned vegetables and sliced meats in the goi cuon.
True to its name, Pho Nhat serves nearly two dozen varieties of pho. Most begin with a beef broth prepared with a complex array of spices. Rice noodles are added to the broth along with various cuts of meat or vegetables. Approximately 75% of the restaurant’s pho choices are beef ranging from rare meat (pho tai) to well-done (pho chin) and various types of offal such as tripe and tendons. If undecided and adventurous, try the “Super Bowl” a combination soup that packs all varieties of beef into one meal in a bowl. Pho bo kho skips the broth in favor of a thicker beef stew with noodles.
The others feature chicken, seafood, or vegetables. In the last category, Pho Nhat makes a solid veggie pho. It’s not truly vegetarian, but it uses a lighter broth better suited to the more delicate vegetable flavors and comes packed varied greenery such as napa cabbage, broccoli, and zucchini all in generous proportions. For meatless dishes beyond veggie pho, there are few other options like fried rice and egg noodles with mixed vegetables. Surprisingly, none contain tofu — in contrast to the liberal use of that ingredient at some other local Vietnamese restaurants.
Pho alternatives include a more limited array of mi soups, which use egg noodles in place of rice noodles. These generally rely on a lighter broth and are more likely to include chicken breast or seafood, usually shrimp, either by itself or with “crab.” The latter is the imitation product, even though that detail is not announced on the menu. Wontons, beef meatballs, and shrimp balls can also be found among the noodles in many of the mi soups, all of them relying on animal protein sources that are ground rather than sliced.
All types of pho and mi come with a plate of accompaniments, including basil leaves, bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos, and lime wedges. Each table also has a variety of condiment bottles with sriracha hot sauce probably being the most popular way to accessorize a steaming bowl of pho. With most items, an upgrade of just a couple of dollars adds an assortment of produce — broccoli florets, bits of cabbage, and sliced zucchini — to any soup or noodle dish. Likewise, beef can be added to any meatless dish for an equally small charge.
Bun is pho’s dry cousin, with rice noodles resting on a bed of shredded lettuce, topped with fried shallots and sliced scallions. It’s served with a small bowl of fish sauce used to moisten the noodles in the absence of a soup broth. Barbecued meat, grilled shrimp, and sliced egg rolls are among the choices of toppings available in various combinations. Among the rice dishes, the lemongrass chicken is a popular favorite, and the curry has a rich, peppered sauce built on a base of coconut milk. For the less adventurous, pork or beef with rice and eggs are likely to be the most comforting dishes.
Beverages include fountains sodas, teas, and lemonade. When ordering the last item, proceed with caution. Order just “lemonade,” and you’ll get a generic product straight out of the soda fountain. Spend a little more for the fresh lemonade, squeezed to order on the premises. Even better, ask for soda chanh, fresh lemonade with a sparkling kick mixed in with the lemon tartness of the drink. In a similar vein, soda xi muoi is an effervescent mix of plum, carbonation, and a little salt. There’s no alcohol served here, but coconut juice served inside the shell looks like an exotic cocktail.
There’s no dessert on the menu, so fill up on all those noodles and rice dishes. One way to finish the meal is with cafe sua da. It’s Vietnamese coffee served with ice and condensed milk. It’s a high-octane treat that extinguishes any lingering fire from the main course. Pho Nhat is not unique among the area’s Vietnamese restaurants and doesn’t claim a particular regional specialty. Nevertheless, it functions as a general purpose neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant near ASU, filling one of many international food niches in a rapidly developing corner of Tempe.
933 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281