There are many words that I associate with Pho, the first one being delicious. Pho is a delight, when it is done right. A large steamy bowl, filled with hot beef broth, noodles and meat that is accentuated by tiny chopped green onions, floating across its surface. The side plate of beautiful extras that only enhance the flavorful soup. Fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil and sliced peppers come with an array of condiments on the side such as salty fish sauce, sweet and sticky hoisin sauce and a wonderful blend of garlic and chili that, by the spoonful, can turn your hot soup into HOT soup. Pho is a comfort food. It makes me feel better when I’m sick and is almost like a magic potion, improving my bad moods by the spoonful.
Pho, for the uninitiated, is a traditional Vietnamese dish developed around the turn of the 20th century. It started in northern Vietnam, a soup that was made from a stock of beef, beef bones, and onions, combined with secret herbs and spices. Served with a nest of rice noodles and stewed onions, it was paired with meatballs or slices of steak. The simplest form of Pho is what can be identified as Hanoi. Not until the popularity spread to southern Vietnam, was all the extra added, known as Saigon style. The pho that is most common in the springs, from what I have experienced, is Saigon style. It is the same basic beef stock (or vegetable stock to accommodate vegetarian palates) but has delightful extras brought to accompany it. Now I wish I could say that I was a purist, eating pho the way that it was originally presented, but Saigon style appeals to me. The fact that I have options to take something magnificent and alter it to suit my palate makes me feel like I’m a part of the culinary genius taking place.
Pho 54 has long been my pho-ateria of choice (I’m sure that I just made that word up). I have been all over the city of Colorado Springs in the pursuit of pho, even venturing out into the mystical pho-land (another made up word) of Denver, and I have yet to come across their equal. When I first stumbled upon this place, I was far from impressed. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have a fear of being mugged by a crack head on my way to the restaurant or assaulted by a crazy hobo flasher, but I did hold my keys in between my knuckles just to be safe. The inside of the restaurant left much to be desired.
There are many ways to define a Pho experience, starting with the most important thing, the food. I appreciate a soup that I can taste. Not overwhelming, like I’m sucking on a cube of beef bouillon, and not underwhelming, as if sipping on lightly steeped black tea. Any soup that has a stock base should have enough herbs and spices to make it shine, not in a way that reveals the family secret, but leaves you hungering for more.
I started this experience out with my usual dining formula, coconut water, eggrolls, and then Pho. The coconut water was cold and delicious, in a glass that came equipped with a straw and a teaspoon, with which I could fish out and devour chunks of fruit. The eggrolls came out a few minutes later, sizzling from the grease and presented on a bed of lettuce, rice noodles and pickled vegetables. I don’t know what I was expecting from these eggrolls, but it far exceeded any idea about what an eggroll should be. Hot and crunchy, I scalded my mouth on the first bite, and eagerly risked second degree burns as I tried to consume this delicious treat. As I was gorging myself, my waiter came over and suggested that I used the lettuce, noodles and vegetables to wrap my eggrolls in, and it multiplied the enjoyment of this dish exponentially. A little sloppy, it is not the most appealing meal for a first date, but acceptable to eat across from your best friend or mom. Then the star of the meal came, the pho. It came out swiftly, steaming and fragrant as it was placed in front of me, as well as a plate of fresh veggies. I tasted the broth and tested the steak and bible tripe that I ordered with it. The beef was tender and delicious and the tripe had a very different texture than what I was used to. It was sliced and a bit chewy, when I was used to it being tender from dishes like menudo. It was an overall delightful experience and the broth was my favorite part.
Pho 54 is mid-range when it comes to pricing. A small bowl of Pho will run you about $5.75, with a dollar increase as you go up in size. My favorite drink is coconut water, which I deduce must be prepared fresh, simply from the amount of time that it takes for it to hit the table. But a tall glass of transparent liquid, complemented by what looks and tastes like the creamy flesh of fresh young coconut is well worth the wait and the price that sits right around $3.95 for the majority of the pho-ateria’s ( there’s that word again) that I frequent. You can also order the delicious, poetry inducing eggrolls for about $4.95. Over all I find that, with tip, I spend about $20.00 overall, but you can go and eat there for about $15.00 with an appetizer, entrée, and delicious drink.
The owner and his wife are often found in the dining room with the customers, but the husband is the shining star when it comes to service. Personable and smiling, he always gives prompt, enthusiastic service. He offers suggestions and cares about his customers. The wife is more business, but is definitely a sweetheart in her own right. I found that I get a scolding for being gone too long, reminding me of my mother and making the homey experience even more legitimate for me. I have severe allergies to tree nuts and fish, and they take care that they leave off the peanuts from the bed of rice noodles my amazing eggrolls are delivered on, and always leave the fish sauce that usually accompanies most dishes far away from my meals. Never have they huffed and puffed at me or ignored my requests for any special preparation I may need, which I run into often.
I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who was looking for a good homey place to eat. The food is amazing, the service is outstanding and even though the interior design is lacking, the essence of the people and food truly shine through. Pho 54, I keep coming back for more because of what you bring to the table.