Claire Slobodian finds aromatic Vietnamese noodle soups, a warm and cheery restaurant and an unbalanced menu at Pho, the latest small London chain to open in Reading.
It’s entirely possible that a lot of you have already been to Pho for your fill of noodle soup way before us at Explore Reading. On opening day in August the restaurant offered free food to every customer and a queue of eager diners ran all the way down King Street, passed Workhouse Coffee and almost onto Broad Street.
Since then, the restaurant hasn’t stopped being busy. On each of our three visits for lunch and dinner, the room has been full and buzzing. It’s the second new international restaurant opening on the ground floor of the revamped King’s Walk, after Korean barbecue place Soju, and it’s also Reading’s first Vietnamese restaurant.
Pho started out in 2005 as one tiny Clerkenwell noodle soup joint inspired by the founders’ backpacking trips to Vietnam. Although they still bill themselves as a family business, there’s now 15 branches in London and 10 outside the capital. So it is a chain, but it’s one of the wave of smaller, well-loved London brands, like Franco Manca or Comptoir Libanais, making their way to Reading faster than our forthcoming high speed train line can keep up with.
The room at Reading’s Pho is warm, cosy and completely unrecognisable from the strip-lit Burger King it once housed. Design dismisses the current trend of bare, echoey, industrial rooms (Franco Manca, Seven Bone, I’m looking at you) with a gentle flick of a paintbrush.
Down the centre runs a big bank of wooden plank booths for four or snug nooks for two. Along the outside are rows of high-top tables and comfortable low padded benches along with a series of bigger round tables for groups at the back. Overhead the pipe-covered ceiling is hidden behind clusters of giant wicker lamp shades. A neon pho shaped light and cartoon murals of Vietnamese street vendors bring a playful feel to the walls.
The focus here is the titular dish, pho (pronounced fuh), or Vietnamese noodle soup, usually made with a beef bone broth. Pho boast that their kitchen follow the traditional 12-hour brew time to let their broth steep in meaty goodness. The menu features over 19 different varieties of the dish including a surprisingly large selection of vegan and gluten-free options.
The classic, pho chin (main image), comes with thinly sliced beef brisket, bean sprouts, flat noodles, herbs, a ton of green veg and that gentle, warming beef broth. In my bowl, the 12-hour stew time shines through with a deep and warming, aromatic flavour. It’s not spicy but gently peppy on the tongue thanks to cinnamon and star anise. The slices of beef brisket are tender and pull-apart soft with the odd crunchy end left on for good measure. Dig around for soft, flat rice noodles soaked in that beef flavour.
As is traditional in Vietnam, alongside my bowl I also get a plate stacked with seasonings including coriander, mint, chilies and lime, to tailor my pho to taste. They help lift the dish with a zesty, herbal note, although mine look slightly wilted on arrival, as if they have sat lined up on the pass all service.
I prefer my soups on the spicier side, so found the hotter Hue soup more dynamic. It’s the same format as the classic, but made with a deep red chilli pepper sauce and lifted by light lemongrass. I drain my bowl and come away with a very pleasant tongue tingle.
Sadly, outside of the pho I get little zest or zing in many of the other main dishes. Bun is a dry stir fried vermicelli noodle dish. Served piled high with lots of leaves, lemongrass, slices of chilli and topped with a crispy vegetable spring roll, it looks impressive. Our chicken version is bland however, with barely three little slices of plain chicken peeking out from behind the endless beansprouts. The accompanying nuoc cham fish sauce is slightly sour, slightly salty and a pinch spicy. It adds much needed flavour, but sadly mine all collects in a pool at the bottom of the funnel shaped bowl, making it difficult to really blend it around all the dish.
Also lacklustre, is the pho xao: wok fried flat noodles with lemongrass, chilli and Asian greens. My dining companion suggests it resembles the stir fried yakisoba on the menu at Wagamama. But, disappointingly, it doesn’t even reach the crunch or punch of that dish. Pho’s website describes pho xao as like ‘Vietnamese pad thai, only better’, but for me it lacks any of the flavour of even the weakest of pad thai.
Jumping back to the starters, they are sizeable and worth sharing, which I recommend so you can try them all. Make sure to order the fresh and zingy goi cuon, which are summer rolls wrapped in thin, translucent rice paper. The nem nuong, grilled pork and lemongrass meatballs, are also a fun and satisfying dish. Warming, pungently herby and slightly greasy, in a good way, we wrap them in the accompanying lettuce leaves and dip in the sauce.
Of the two accompanying dipping sauces options, I prefer the sweet chilli sauce, which is lightly spicy and doesn’t overpower the flavours of the dish quite like the peanut sauce. That’s very tasty too; thick and gloopy, it’s essentially peanut butter in a bowl. I could probably eat it with a spoon, but it hides everything delicate about the summer rolls.
For drinks, there’s an exciting menu of cocktails made with rice wine spirit Nep Phu Loc, including the punderfully-named Phojito and the citrusy lemon and basil martini, as well as Vietnamese beers Saigon and Ha Noi. If you don’t want alcohol, there’s also a pleasing homemade lemonade and a flavourful range of detox juices which you can add lashings of ginger to for an added kick.
Service is generally warm and all staff come across as knowledgeable and friendly. They’re quick to explain how Vietnamese cuisine works, and the best way to eat each dish. In a nice touch, one waitress even points out which of the dipping sauces contain fish for my vegetarian companion.
But they’re not without the occasional service wobble. On my first visit, I’m told I can’t have the lemon and basil martini because they’re out of clean martini glasses. My suggestion of the same drink in a different vessel causes my waitress to purse her lips and ponder this for near a full minute. On another visit, I overhear the duty manager remind her team three times to bring my table glasses for our Saigon beers. They finally emerge when the beers, and the meal, are on its last dregs.
Vietnamese cuisine can be a difficult one to get to know. It doesn’t offer big, bold flavours like Indian or Thai food. Instead it features gentle, fresh and aromatic tastes which creep up on you. Pho’s menu makes these flavours fun, accessible and easy to navigate, if, on occasion, not overly exciting.
Dining at Pho is a comforting and enjoyable but not mind-blowing experience. It’s a cheery, likeable spot with engaged staff (most of the time) and less rush, harsh light or hard surfaces than you’d find at the other Asian chain restaurants in town, such as Wagamamas and Yo! Sushi. It’s also affordable and proves welcoming to families, with children getting a colouring menu and easy to use practice chopsticks.
I just wish the menu was more even, dropping some of the bland mains for a slightly stronger sense of Vietnam’s rustic street food origins. Navigate around these and head straight to the pho dishes. Add a side helping of almost any of the starters and I think you’ll get a meal of interesting flavours and a better dining experience than at Wagamama, hands down.
Dinner for two people with drinks: £59
Pho, Kings Walk, 1 – 1a King’s Road, Reading, RG1 2HG. Open 11.30am-10pm Monday-Thursday, 11.30am-10.30pm Friday – Saturday, 12-9.30pm Sunday. 01183 914 648. View website.
Read more: New restaurant openings in Reading in 2017