Food and Drink, Vietnamese

Where to Get Vietnamese Pho in Pittsburgh

We visited five spots for Pho along Penn Ave – and then rounded up 11 more places in Pittsburgh offering this cold weather soup lover’s staple.

I am walking briskly. One hand holds two handles of a plastic bag while the other cups the bottom of the bag. Inside are plastic containers. One container is quart-sized and filled to brim with piping hot beef broth. Another has raw onion and thinly-sliced rare beef. Another with rice noodles. There’s a bag with lime, bean sprouts, and a basil stem. This is phở, pandemic style.

When not living through a massively destructive global pandemic, one would go to a restaurant that serves pho, sit down, and order. Once the steaming, filled-to-the-brim bowl arrives at your table, you would lower your head into the bowl, let the vapor rise up against your face, and breathe in the rich, long-cooked broth. You’d take the basil and steep it in the broth, drop in the bean sprouts and the jalapenos, and dig in.

Beef pho from Tan Lac Vien. Photo: David Bernabo

But the wildly contagious COVID-19 has essentially eliminated indoor dining. So, take out it is! What follows are some of my favorite places to get pho in Pittsburgh.

Before we start, it should be noted that pho is made with beef broth. Like any food, experimentation occurs and cuisines mutate with population migrations, resource availability, and creative expressions. What began as a Northern Vietnamese dish moved south in 1954 when the country was partitioned in two and over a million people left the north for the south. Garnishes like hoisin sauce, mung bean sprouts, and hot chili sauce began to appear in pho. Twenty years later, you see pho being made with boiled water and MSG right after the Vietnam War during the reunified Vietnam’s “subsidy period” food shortages. Also after the war, migration out of Vietnam brought pho to the world, and as U.S.-Vietnam relations improved, Vietnamese restaurants burst forth on the American dining scene in the 90s. Now, college campuses like Carnegie Mellon University’s dining services offer pho options. (Of course, the history of pho is much more complicated than this cherry-picked list.)

Also, pho is pronounced “fuh” not “foe.” And there is chicken pho called pho ga, but you may also see a Vietnamese soup made from chicken bones listed as hủ tiếu, a soup that grew in popularity in Saigon. That is, unless you have the Teochew-style hủ tiếu, which is a pork stock and similar to the Cambodian kuy teav (remember this for later). If you see a Northern pho, this generally means that the stock is fattier as opposed to the Southern pho or Saigon pho’s clearer broth. And depending where you travel, you may see a sour pho, a duck pho, or a grilled liver pho, among many other variants.

Starting in Garfield and ending in the Strip District, there are five Vietnamese restaurants that offer pho on Penn Avenue. Let’s take a tour!

Pho Minh

 

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A long time presence in Garfield, Pho Minh is where my wife and I had our second, third, fifth, eighth, eleventh, and seventeenth dates. Out of habit, I usually get a 43 (vermicelli bowl) or 46 (chicken and shrimp stir-fried noodle dish), but they offer a number of great phos. Explore the complexities of yourself by ordering either the rare beef pho or the well-done beef pho or even the combo rare beef and well-done beef pho. You can get also chicken in a beef broth and also beef in a chicken broth–there are four hủ tiếu options. Overall, Pho Minh offers 20 different soups–not all pho–but all worth tasting.

Tram’s Kitchen

Opened in 1997 by the Le family, Tram’s Kitchen is one of the longest running Vietnamese restaurants in Pittsburgh. They offer 16 different soups including the Pho Hanoi Soup (beef, chicken, meatball) and the Saigon Soup (with its surf and turf of pork and shrimp), all seemingly priced like it’s the late 90s. In a 2005 Pittsburgh City Paper article, Le Thao said of his restaurant, “rich or poor, everyone can come,” a sentiment that still rings true today.

Ineffable Cà Phê

A block away from Tram’s is Ineffable Cà Phê, a cozy coffeehouse with delicious cà phê sữa (Vietnamese coffee) and banh mi. They offer two types of pho, pho ga and pho dau hu, a vegan tofu pho.

Pho Van

 

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Pho Van in the Strip District allows you to customize your pho. Add in tripe, brisket, beef ribs, meatballs, or eye round (Bò tái)–the sliced rare beef that cooks in the hot broth. They also offer pho chicken. And you can add a fried egg, which sounds delicious.

Maiku Sushi and Pho

If you’ve been reading this list and thinking that there is something missing and that something is sushi, then Maiku Sushi and Pho may be the place for you. They have six options for beef broth pho plus chicken and vegetarian pho. They are here for all your sushi, banh mi, and bubble tea needs.

Veering away from Penn Avenue . . .

Two Sisters Vietnamese Restaurant

One of the newest places to offer pho is Two Sisters Vietnamese Restaurant, which opened in 2018 in the East Liberty space next to the building that over the years has housed Steel City Rib House, Union Pig and Chicken, and Porked. If walking into this location still triggers a pork craving, you can pick up a pork shoulder bun, but definitely get a pho. In addition to offerings of chicken or vegan phos, I tried the beef (brisket, eye round beef, meatball) and the seafood (scallop, shrimp, mussels) phos. Both were delicious with rich broths and balanced ingredients. I can also recommend the papaya salad and the seasoned fish sauce wings.

Me Lyng

Me Lyng has been around so long that they were reviewed in The Pittsburgh Press in 1986, former Post-Gazette food critic Mike Kalina awarded them a perfect five fork review in 1991, and Pittsburgh Magazine gave them the “Best Service” award in 1987 and the “Best Oriental Cuisine” award in 1988. The menu offers both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes–and quite a lot of them!–and their pho offerings include beef and chicken phos.

Tan Lac Vien

I’ve been getting the vermicelli bowls from Tan Lac Vien for years, but never tried the pho. There are eight pho on the menu plus another eight soups that use a pork and chicken stock. I tried the Pho Special–rare beef, flank, tendon, tripe, and meatball. The rare beef was delicious, adding a nice savory counter to the quality punch of the jalapenos. Good stuff!

What The Pho & Boba Tea Bar

Winner of the pun game, What The Pho & Boba Tea Bar is a newer spot focusing on boba tea (bubble tea), banh mi, and pho. For pho, there are sliced beef, chicken, tofu and plant-based options.

There are a few places that specialize in non-Vietnamese cuisines that also offer a pho on their menu. Thai Me Up and Mad Noodles, both in the South Side, have pho options. Lulu’s Noodles in Oakland, where I ate 4-6 times a week during my sophomore year in college, has a $6.25 pho with lots of fun add-ons like BBQ pork, fish balls, and Asian sausage. Noodle catch-all Thai & Noodle Outlet in Squirrel Hill offers a Thai Pho Soup. And back to the Southside, Cambod-Ican Kitchen serves a kuy teav, which is listed on the menu as “like pho.”

If you live outside of the city, you can find pho at Mekong Pho Gourmet in Dormont and Pho Kim 88 in Castle Shannon.

 

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Happy eating!