Follow the light rail tracks west along Camelback Road from Central to 19th Avenue, and a rapid transition occurs. Uptown, the area centered around Central and Camelback is predominantly white and a magnet for upscale businesses, both local and national. 19th Avenue is a multi-ethnic corridor with some of the best bargains to be found in local dining. The area in between is transitional, and one restaurant located there, PT Noodles, seems to fit well in that zone with an approach halfway between Americanized familiarity and Vietnamese authenticity.
PT Noodles is currently the easternmost outpost of a small chain concentrated in the West Valley. Following earlier openings in Avondale, Goodyear, and Surprise, the restaurant’s central Phoenix branch is situated in an aging shopping center. This plaza is currently dominated by a fitness center, a supermarket, and a lot of space used unproductively for surface parking, even though it should be a strong location for more intensive transit-oriented development. PT Noodles is found in a satellite building just across the street from the Camelback / 7th Avenue light rail station.
A crude hand-written sign indicates that the door facing Camelback is locked, so walk around to the north side for access to the restaurant. A bike rack is found in front of a nearby urgent care facility. Despite the ordinary stucco aesthetics of the shopping center, PT Noodles looks bright and energetic inside. The decor is a step up from bare-bones pho joints and features comfortable booths and four-top tables in a sunny dining room with matching wooden floors and furniture. Video screens show scenes of Vietnamese cooking in action and pop music plays on the speakers.
The restaurant not only has a contemporary look, but also tries a high-tech approach to service. Servers carry tablets they use to enter orders, and each table features a call button that allows customers to summon staff when something is needed. Despite this innovation, service here is still a work in progress. The uniformed staff are unfailingly cheerful and gracious, but dishes often fail to arrive in the requested order and a certain amount of “auctioning” in which servers try, with only partial success, to match dishes with the table ordering them has been observed.
PT Noodles’ menu might be seen as a compilation of the most popular Vietnamese food served in the United States, along with a few other dishes with Chinese, Japanese, and Thai inspirations. It’s a broad representation of what customers have come to expect in a Vietnamese restaurant, but not particularly deep in any one category. The combo appetizer platter exemplifies this approach: two crisp egg rolls stuffed with ground pork and vegetables, two chicken wings, two spring rolls, and two shrimp egg rolls complete with protruding tails.
All these items are available separately and functions equally well as shared starters. In term of entrees, PT Noodles serves eight varieties of pho, ranging from the meatless pho chay to the fully loaded pho dac biet with multiple cuts of beef and meatballs. All come in a slightly sweet broth with the usual array of garnishes allowing customization of flavor. Those who want a more adventurous soup experience have the options of bun bo hue, a spicier noodle soup, and hu tieu nam vang, Cambodian noodle soup replete with shrimp, quail egg, and all sorts of pork, including heart and liver.
Rice dishes and noodle dishes without soup return to basic protein sources such as beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and tofu. In some menu categories, there is a combination item beginning with the initials PT (derived from the owner’s name). The fried rice and the stir-fried noodles both follow this approach with meats or tofu available individually or mixed. PT Noodles’ curry dishes use a mild, yellow sauce that blends well with the potatoes and carrots within, not to mention the accompanying jasmine rice. The lemongrass stir fries rely on broccoli, carrots, bok choy to complement meat or tofu.
The restaurant also serves a basic array of bun, or dry noodle dishes, and banh mi, sandwiches made with crusty baguette. Entree size salads include not only papaya, but a visually impressive pineapple salad. Straying somewhat from its Vietnamese theme, PT Noodles also serves solid renditions of teriyaki, orange chicken, and mayonnaise shrimp. The teriyaki and orange chicken play a prominent and predictable role on the children’s menu, along with kids’ pho, not only served in smaller bowls but also simplified without scallions and cilantro floating in the broth.
Dessert choices avoid traditional Vietnamese puddings in favor of cheesecake and a refrigerated case full of macarons. The latter might be seen as a French colonial influence; however, the macaron fillings include tropical tastes such as mango and green tea. Since they’ve sold at the counter, they’re easily taken to go, as a sort of dessert-on-the-run or as a snack to be saved for later. Beverages include Vietnamese coffee, fruit smoothies with boba, sweetened teas, fountain sodas, and a small selection of bottled beer and wine.
Although the restaurant is full service, customers pay at the end of their meals at a counter, where a modern point-of-sale system accepts Apple Pay and, presumably, other contactless payment systems. That’s one high-tech touch that works consistently to improve the customer experience here. With these innovations, PT Noodles is a restaurant deliberately positioned halfway between the hole-in-the-wall stereotype of authenticity and a slightly more upscale and contemporary experience. It’s a transitional approach and therefore makes sense in a traditional part of town.
2/7/2019 Update: Since the publication of this review, this restaurant has changed its name to PT Pho Express and has made some changes to its menu. While most dishes mentioned above are still offered, a few may have been discontinued.
702 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix AZ 85013
Camelback / 7th Avenue Station