When diners-in-the-know speak of pho in Philadelphia, they’re usually hipster denizens of South Philly talking about haunting the blocks of Washington Avenue between 11th and 13th, looking for the magical elixir of rich North Vietnamese broth filled with bánh phở rice noodles, meat (beef brisket and flank along with chicken), or tripe (edible stomach lining from cows).
There, along Washington Avenue, restaurants like Pho 75 pack local eaters in day and night. The same can be said of Chinatown’s excursions into the noodle soup culinary aesthetic such as Pho Xe Lua (907 Race) and Pho Cali (1000 Arch). Most of these locations have been around for a minute doing what they do best, several to the exclusion of any other dish.
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iPHO Vietnam is a simple, brightly lit café with windows on both sides of its corner property, plant green designs on its walls and wooden sun hats adorning the inside of the restaurant. You won’t stay just for the décor however.
Van Nguyen’s iPHO — in partnership with Fare’s Andy Siegel and Fairmount Pizza’s Savvas Novrosidis — features the usual items of Vietnamese cuisine, like the Banh mi hoagie. There are fluffy cloud-light shrimp filled summer rolls and tangy papaya salads as well. Mostly though, you’ll go to iPHO for the nearly 30 different pho and the additional 10 hu tieu mi, a raging spicy soup-stew with egg noodles slightly thicker than the rice vermicelli that fills the former, to say nothing of shrimp and fish balls.
Anyone who loves pho can tell you that pho fillers such as tripe or brisket can be tough or chewy. At iPHO, they’re as tender as any rare steakhouse cut and just as sweet as any rib joint’s fare. The secret though is in the strong but supple broth, a bit of magic that neither iPHO manager Long Trung or his chefs will discuss. “We just can’t say,” he states with a smile.