The challenge: To determine the best Pho on or near the 14th Street Corridor.
The details: Last week, the guys behind Marvin opened a new Vietnamese restaurant Hanoi House on 14th and U Street. I visited the new spot three days after it opened. I was immediately impressed with the decor and the vibe, and I enjoyed my Vermicelli Bowl and the Pho. After I left, however, I began to wonder whether the cool ambiance detracted from the authenticity or quality of the food. I wondered how Hanoi House compared to Pho 14, a "hole in the wall" Vietnamese place in Columbia Heights that has been widely touted as one of the best Pho joints in the city. I decided to put the two restaurants to the test, and find out which should be my go-to spot for Pho.
For those of you who have never eaten Pho or Vietnamese food before, Pho (pronounced 'Fa') is a Vietnamese soup served with either beef or chicken, rice noodles, lime juice, and a variety of different vegetables, like green onion, bean sprouts, and herbs, like basil and cilantro. There are also seafood or vegetarian options. It is similar in style to Ramen, which you'll likely remember as the dried noodles that your college roommate alternated with Easy Mac for dinner options. Both Pho and Ramen, however, are actually incredibly complex, rich broths that incorporate fresh meat, homemade noodles, and fresh vegetables, baring no resemblance to your college experience. One of these days I will get back over to Toki Underground, and give you a review of proper Ramen. I digress. Back to the Pho Down.
At Hanoi House, image is everything. When you walk in, it's like you're stepping into a Pho brothel.
|The entry and wait area at Hanoi House|
The walls are lacquer black with red accents, the lighting is low, and the entire staff is dressed to a T. We arrived without a reservation and were immediately shuffled off to the side to wait - despite the fact that half of the tables were open. Allegedly, the tables were being held for reservations, but they were all still open when we were seated (at the bar) 20 minutes later.
|Forgive the bad photography- this place was very dimly lit|
The best part about Hanoi House was the drink list. The mixologists hail from The Gibson (D.C.'s acclaimed speakeasy) and have come up with an interesting bar menu that is sprinkled with delightful surprises like star anise vodka. Um, yes please. There were tons of drink combinations that I had never seen before and was excited to try.
|The bar at Hanoi House|
I ordered the New Dynasty, which had red plum, lime, Thai basil, and star anise vodka. It was beautifully served with a sprig of basil as a garnish. The drink had a completely unique flavor- tangy but not sweet and very fresh from the basil. My friend, Abby, ordered The Gold Star, which had mango, nutmeg, pineapple, lemon and pisco. She also loved the tropical creation.
|The New Dynasty|
To eat, I ordered the Vermicelli Bowl with Chicken and Shrimp, and Abby ordered the Pho Ga (chicken). We wanted to get two different things to try out the menu. The Pho was definitely the winner between the two entrees, but both had their perks. The Vermicelli Bowl is more of a salad and had rice noodles, lettuce, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, chicken and shrimp. The sauce, a sweet dressing, was served on the side. Although the bowl was pretty bland without the dressing, I appreciated that the sauce was served on the side so that I could decide how much to add. Truthfully the flavor was still a little lacking so I added chilli sauce and hoisin sauce to kick it up a notch. It was good, but not necessarily the most exciting Vietnamese food I've ever had.
|Bean sprouts, basil, jalepno, and lime were seved with both dishes|
|The only thing we weren't impressed by was the obvious layer of oil on top of Abby's Pho Ga|
Atmosphere wise, Pho 14, is about as far as you can get from Hanoi House. It's right off 14th Street in Columbia Heights on a strip of Latin American restaurants that all seem to specialize in Pupusas. Their restaurant has almost no decor, except for a Tiki bar in the back which serves only soft drinks. We were immediately seated at a simple, unpresuming table in the small restaurant. But forget all of that. Diners don't come to Pho 14 for fancy cocktails or dimly lit booths. They come for the Pho.
To start, we ordered the Seafood Spring Rolls. The rice wrapper was filled with a variety of vegetables (celery, green beans, carrots) as well as calamari, shrimp and scallops. It also came with fresh mango and was served cold with a homemade mix of fish sauce, sweet chili and tamarind sauce. It wasn't bad, but honestly, I'd skip that next time and go straight to the Pho.
I ordered the Chin Nam Ve Don Pho, which had well-done brisket and flank steak in the soup. This was, by far, the best Pho I've ever had. My date, far more adventurous than I, got the , which comprised of slices of eye-of-round steak, well-done brisket, fat brisket, soft tendon, and bible tripe. He is far more of a Pho expert than me and claims that the bible tripe is what really makes the dish. The meat was perfectly cooked and added in right before it is served, preventing it from getting soggy or overcooked in the broth. Though you can get Pho at a lot of places, the broth is what makes Pho 14 unique. We also added lime, jalepeno, chili sauce, sriracha, and hoisin to the soup and were practically licking the bowls clean!
THE WINNER: Ranking on food alone, Pho 14 is the clear winner. The broth is far more flavorful and complex and the meat is more expertly prepared. If you're looking for an authentic and truly delicious bowl of Pho, this is the place to go. The drink menu and ambiance at Hanoi House, however, are pretty tough to beat. It is the kind of place I'd go to sample the creative cocktails and schmooze in a sexy environment. And while I might not go there specifically for the food, I like knowing there are some tasty options.