My magic number for pho is 99. There are those who say 501 is better. I say, are you sure? Because, though I used to eat there back in the day, now my money's on Pho 99 all the way. Friendly service, clean, and more varieties of spring rolls than anywhere else I know. For me, it’s the pho gold standard. Not to mention, Chef Peter Nguyen is a sweetheart of a guy who takes pride in what they serve in his restaurants. The smiling man with the infectious laugh is the heart, soul, chef and secret recipe holder within the Pho 99 kitchen.
“The soup is a BIIIIIIIIIIIG secret! No one, family even--Mary’s (his business partner’s) husband don’t know! My wife don’t know! My cousins—don’t know! There’s a lot of businesses like us who come ask, what the heck are you doing? Unbelievable! What you put in there? I say, I do the same as you do!” Peter smiles, knowing full well what he does separates him from the pack and is absolutely not the same.
“People have offered 70, 80 thousand dollars just to learn how to make the broth! 50-60 easy. Only the broth! But my partner say, no. No is no. Doesn’t matter how much. It’s priceless.” Peter’s cheery giggle kicks in. Gesturing, he explains, “Vietnamese traditional is at this level. But now my broth is at this level.” Peter holds his hand higher to illustrate the point. “You know why? Because I combine two countries. Vietnamese traditional culture and American. That’s how I bring it to a high level because I add in more quality. I add a lot more than what it’s supposed to be. I don’t need MSG. A little bit of sea salt in there, that’s it!”
My bowl of choice is the hot and spicy broth (seen above). I specially request the raw beef on the side so I can cook it in the soup myself, as a Vietnamese friend taught me. I mention this to Peter, adding, “I gotta tell you, you have all the sauces on the table. I never touch them. Everything is in there!”
Peter proudly replies, "Nope. Don’t need it. That’s why most people say, wow, Peter! Your broth—we don’t need anything! I say, what you need anything for! Let me explain to you. Most people use this stuff because they don’t have enough quality. So they add it in for the taste. But if you have enough quality, don’t need it!”
“I want to give my customers, my friends, the best soup they’ve ever had. Because I know in my heart, this is what I want to share with all American people. Whatever the market asks me to do, I’ve got to do it. If they want to take care of their health, they will come here. People came all the way from Stamford. They went to the Web and found really good reviews on Yelp and stopped by and said, OHMYGOD!” They make their own noodles as well, of course.
But if, for some reason, you’re not in a pho mood, you’ll find a variety of other dishes to try and love.
I know of no other Vietnamese restaurant that serves at least eight different types of spring rolls, a.k.a. summer rolls, fresh rolls—the ones wrapped in transparent rice paper with fresh mint, lettuce and vermicelli. Sorry, you'll have to see for yourself when you go. Served with peanut sauce that’s plenty delicious on its own—I shamelessly eat it by the spoonful—or fish sauce, by request, your choice.
The tender pork has a honey-sweet, crispy exterior that contrasts perfectly with the rice noodles, frizzled onions, fresh carrot, cucumbers, iceberg lettuce and a sprinkling of peanuts. Then, of course, the egg roll—crispy and flaky outside, not the least bit greasy, with a tasty chicken filling. When I mention the egg roll, Peter explains, “We marinate the meat first with herbs—maybe about 10-12 hours. So everything penetrates through the meat. Then we roll it. And that’s what makes it so flavorful.” It absolutely is.
Continuing with the fine mooing meat theme, Bo Tai Chanh has been a featured special recently, though they didn’t call it by its Vietnamese name. It’s sliced raw beef, onion and basil with lime special sauce. Yes, this Vietnamese carpaccio starts off raw, but is “cooked” by the fish sauce and lime juice. Simple and delicious.
You can even try a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) here. It has the same choice of grilled meat you’d expect, but also peanut sauce, a component I’ve yet to find added elsewhere. When they have the right bread, it’s definitely worth checking out. On one visit, though, they must have run out of the usual crispy, more baguette-like roll and substituted a grinder roll that tasted more like Wonder bread.
I expected to be a bigger fan of the pork chop dish, but prefer a thicker chop, particularly for the price ($17). It comes with a fried egg I wished were runny instead of quite so cooked. For me, it just wasn’t on a par with other offerings. But, in more than two years of eating here regularly, if I can only come up with only one dish I was less jazzed about, I feel it speaks to the quality and variety overall. I love and highly recommend Pho 99 as my hands-down favorite Vietnamese restaurant to anyone who will listen.
On occasion, you’ll find Vietnamese donuts at the counter. Deep-fried deliciousness, made of rice and bean sprouts, then sprinkled with sesame seeds—try some, buy some, fee-fi-fo-fum! Trust me on this; they're a treat not to miss.
And while we’re discussing the little things that make this place special, do try the bubble tea with fresh fruit. My favorite is the honeydew, but they offer watermelon, mango, avocado, kiwi and more.
Parking can be a challenge in the East Hartford location, so know that if all else fails, you can usually park on Mercer Avenue, the side street off of Silver Lane.
People are always asking Peter to open another restaurant in their town. “A customer comes in to eat 8 or 9 o’clock at night and says, OK, Peter, after I eat, I’m gonna go look for a spot for you in Glastonbury. Ten o’clock they call—Peter, you still there? We found a spot for you! I said, OHMYGOD! How lovely it is, you know? I love my customers. If you treat from the heart and soul, you will connect like family. It’s all about caring from one to another.”
“It makes me so happy because, honestly, I don’t think about how much we make profits—Mary takes care of that part. In my mind, I see how much my customers enjoy it. I love my family. I love all you guys like my family. I trust my partner to take care about the financial end of things. My part is to make sure the consistency, what I make in here today, and tomorrow, next month and forever is the same.” Four and a half years and two locations later—with one more under way—Peter’s clearly got it covered and then some.
Pho 99 is located at 245 Silver Lane in East Hartford, CT, and 740 B Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield, CT. Coming to Broad Street in Manchester, CT in early 2017.