The decor at Pho 135, like many Vietnamese restaurants, is a stripped-down window display, announcing that you are here for the food and the food alone. Such parsimony makes one dream of a place like Manhattan’s late Manhattan, lamented Le Colonial, whose lavish ambience evoked colonial Saigon. What you get at 135 is a clean, functional room with an office-style drop ceiling, Formica-covered tables, two large TV screens, and bright drugstore-like lighting.
One wall contains the emblem of a gigantic bowl, signifying the house pho competition: complete the $65 Challenge Bowl in 45 minutes, and it’s free. This monster bowl contains two pounds of beef, two pounds of noodles and two liters of broth. Flanking the emblem is the Wall of Fame, featuring snapshots of the five slurper champions who achieved the feat, and the Wall of Shame – sounds harsh! – with 49 brave but unsuccessful suitors.
Skipping the challenge, we stuck with the menu and found a lot to like, especially in the rolls and dumplings department. The imperial rolls were finger-sized wraps of golden pastry filled with cabbage and pork, served with the addictive sweet and sour nuoc cham sauce which contains lime, sugar, rice vinegar and gravy of fish. The prawn spring rolls were formed into triangles, with the prawns cleverly folded so that the tails emerged from both corners, like handfuls.
The spring rolls were a clever combination of two shrimp, layered on a lettuce and vermicelli filling, visible through the diaphanous rice paper wrapper. Perhaps the tastiest of all was an order of fried wontons, rectangular wraps, filled with mashed pork and shrimp and fried until golden brown, the small size of which belied their big flavor.
The chicken wings – piping hot and fried for optimum crispiness – had a delicate flavor, the garlicky fish sauce thickened and sweetened with honey. A salad consisted of a crispy pile of julienned papaya and carrots, with shrimp, pork and basil, in a fish sauce vinaigrette, topped with chopped peanuts and those crispy Durkee onions your grandma used in pans. Last but not least was an awfully flavorful entrée of grilled chicken, white meat bathed in a complex spice marinade, grilled and served with crushed peanuts and cilantro.
Starters included a superb fish dish served in an earthenware pot, the large chunks of salmon roasted until lightly caramelized and garnished with chunks of pineapple. The slightly tangy and particularly sweet sautéed pork curry was topped with onions and roasted red peppers. The grilled pork offered thin cuts of marinated, grilled pork loin, almost candied in a hoisin glaze, its sweetness well offset by the accompanying marinated carrots.
All is not satisfied. The house special crispy noodles combined generous portions of chicken, pork and prawns with mixed vegetables, but the tangled mass of crispy noodles was hard to manage and the sauce extremely reluctant. The sautéed shrimp suffered from an aggressively salty soy-ginger sauce. And while a crepe starter presented attractive, thick golden pancakes, the filling was mostly bean sprouts and offered little flavor.
Much better was a shaken beef starter. This Vietnamese classic – its curious name referring to the shaken pan cooking process – consists of pieces of filet mignon sautéed with onion, pepper and soy, and served on a platter of tomatoes, cukes and cress. The beef, nicely browned but pink on the inside, is coated in a savory glaze that slightly wilts the greens underneath, giving the whole thing a pleasing lettuce flavor.
Of course, the heart of a pho restaurant is pho. Here, I’ll confess: I’ve never been an aficionado. Maybe it’s my fear of this wall of shame. Pho at 135 comes in three sizes – medium, large and extra large – and the medium is huge. So much broth! That, in one sentence, sums up my pho-phobia. I’ve always thought of broth as just a vehicle for everything else – and as vehicles go, broth in my book is far inferior to, say, rice or pasta.
Yet pho is not just a vehicle; it is an experience of its own. At 135, it starts with a savory broth made from beef bones, brisket and oxtail, simmering in a huge pot for twelve hours, enriched with rock candy and a host of spices: star anise, cinnamon, clove, ginger, black pepper. Before being served, a boatload of items — onions, jalapeno, cilantro, basil, bean sprouts, lime, and silky rice noodles — plus add-ins like sliced brisket, shrimp, or meatballs . (A vegetarian version comes with broccoli, carrots, bok choy, celery, and tofu in a savory vegetable broth.)
Success depends on the balance of flavors to create a fragrant broth, and the soup offered at 135 has considerable subtlety. What does a good pho require? “Love,” owner Tiffany Nguyen laughs. “Love and time.”
Every time I taste the pho at 135 it somehow improves. As for portion sizes, well, a Large – amply loaded with tender chicken – is a meal and more. You will take the leftovers home. And why not? These royal portions, combined with the BYOB policy, provide real value. (A range of creamy, fruity shakes and teas included a boba option to satisfy the teenagers in our party.)
Pho 135 opened its doors only a few years ago, but it has an exalted lineage. Tiffany Nguyen’s family worked at Truc, the state’s first Vietnamese restaurant, since 1975, then ran Que Hong on New Park Ave in the 1980s and 90s. Dishes at 135 are brightened up with details that you might not even notice, like the sriracha cleverly dispensed into the peanut sauce in the shape of a little heart. This is a restaurant that takes the time to show you the love.
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Pho 135 / 135 S. Main Street / West Hartford / 860 904 5547
3 ½ stars
THE ATMOSPHERE: simple and welcoming.
The bill: Appetizers and salads from $8 to $15; pho, $13 to $17; entrees, $16 to $24.
HOURS: Monday to Wednesday, Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sat, 10.30am-9pm; Sunday, from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed on Thursday. Reservations not necessary.
ACCESSIBILITY: Wheelchair access from the front of the restaurant. Free street parking.