Of all the (Americanized) Asian cuisines, Vietnamese is probably my favorite—and somehow, I had managed to avoid Pho 88 for all these years.
This was a mistake. The food and service that we sampled on both of our visits was quite enjoyable.
My feelings about Pho 88 pretty much parallel my feelings about the restaurant's charbroiled pork with vermicelli ($7.50). This version of bún is one of my favorite stock Vietnamese-restaurant dishes; heck, it's one of my favorite dishes, period. I fell in love with it thanks to the stunningly good version prepared at the Golden Flower restaurant in my hometown of Reno, Nev. There's just something about the way the ingredients combine—the charbroiled slices of pork, the noodles, the fresh vegetables, the fish sauce—that can carry me to nirvana every time I eat it.
As for the Pho 88 version ... it didn't lead me to nirvana, but it got me somewhere in the general neighborhood. The pork was prepared masterfully, and the dish as a whole made me quite happy. However, it fell short of the Golden Flower in two ways: The fish sauce was fine, but it lacked the depth of the version I savor so much in Reno; and some of the cucumber pieces (which joined mint, lettuce, carrot, basil and some small peanut pieces) were freakishly bitter. Nonetheless, I will be returning to Pho 88 for this dish.
Of course, seeing as the word Pho is in the restaurant's name, we had to sample ample quantities of noodle soup on our visits. (All are $7.50; add a buck to upgrade to extra-large.) All of the three we tried—the iterations with rare steak and meatballs; rare steak and well-done steak; and the house special, with beef both rare and well-done, tripe and tendon—hit the figurative spot. The meats consistently had ample flavor, and the accompanying vegetables (bean sprouts, basil, lime and jalapeño, all served separately, cold, to add in yourself) were fresh and flavorful.
The only quibble involves the broth: It was certainly adequate, but not mind-blowing. The woman who both serves (at least on our two visits) and seemingly runs the place told us that it takes 10 hours to prepare the soup, and I don't doubt that. (She also politely chided me for not adding enough basil to my pho on our first visit; she's a hoot.) The broth had a lot of subtle flavor—especially with a squirt of Sriracha sauce—but it didn't quite pack the taste-bud wallop that truly amazing pho iterations can.
The rest of the dishes we tried were all likable. The soft spring rolls with shrimp and pork ($5.50), served with a sweet peanut sauce, were carried by the flavors of the pork and the mint. (The shrimp, unfortunately, contributed only texture.) Garrett ranged away from the Vietnamese offerings a bit to sample the shrimp chow mein ($8.95); he found the dish to be rather delectable, even though the shrimp were ever-so-slightly overcooked. The crispy noodles' texture held up well even after being immersed in the sauce, and the fresh vegetables (including broccoli, bok choy, carrots and zucchini) helped tie things together.
The wide-ranging menu also includes a variety of other appetizers, rice dishes, noodle soups, lo mein, chow fun, fried-rice varieties and even a few Asian Restaurant 101 offerings (like orange chicken, $7.50); the takeout menu lists 92 different dishes, including a section of nine vegetarian offerings. As the cliché goes, there's something for everyone, basically.
As I noted before, the service is good, if extremely casual; we dined in for one visit and got takeout on another, and were treated well both times.
I highly recommend Pho 88. The food probably won't leave you exclaiming that it's the best you've ever had, but chances are, it will leave you satisfied.