Saturday, August 20, 2011

Another Route 1 Gem: Pho 888

The Route 1 strip spanning from Boston through Revere and continuing through Saugus into Peabody is kind of a wacky adventure of novelty signs, over the top eateries, and orange dinosaurs. But it certainly does have it's collection of gems. There's the somewhat recently opened second edition of Santarpio's that has landed here. Everybody is a fan of Karl's Sausage Kitchen. And then you have the neon mainstays like Kowloon and Hill Top Steakhouse. But there's one that you're probably going to miss if you don't know it's there. There's no flashy sign, and as far as I can tell, the world of internet food nerds haven't descended upon a real find as of yet. So please, let me introduce you to Pho 888, located on the Southbound side of Route 1 in Peabody, MA. 
My bigger half and I have made it a habit to hit up the 888 on every Saturday where he happens to have the top half of the day off. (Note: To the utter sadness of pho cravers everywhere, they are now closed on Sundays.) Driving past the huge Christmas Eve sign with the big Santa Claus hanging off of it in the middle of August is a bit surreal, but shortly after that it's a quick right turn into a nothing so special strip mall, and you've arrived at Pho 888. It's inexpensive, it's filling, it's something we could never duplicate without hours of preparation and research at home, and frankly, I consider the place my own little sanctuary. You're not coming here for the decor, unless you've got a thing for infomercials and plastic flowers. This place is all about Vietnamese soups, where the flavor of the broth is so well balanced that I think it could give a few of the Chinatown Boston spots a serious run for their money. 
So what to order? Well, there are five greatest hits, where at least two or three will make it on our roster on any particular lunch time adventure.
Chả giò
1) Chả giò: These deep fried spring rolls are absolutely delicious. Crispy little rolls are filled with lightly pickled, sweet shredded onions and carrots. Ground pork is another prime flavor that comes to this party. I realize that they do closely resemble just about any spring roll that you might order from your local Chinese takeout. But they're better than that. Since there are pickled vegetables within each roll, along with the ground pork, and a delightful dipping sauce that tastes of rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, and whatever brine they may have used for the pickled veggies, not only are these rolls crunchy and savory, but they're also tangy, and vibrantly fresh. Crunchy and succulent, these are a wonderful little appetizer to tide you over while you wait for whatever big bowl of noodles you have ordered. 
Phở đặc biệt
2) Phở đặc biệt or Xe Lua (extra large size of Phở đặc biệt): This is the classic bowl of pho, and the first bowl that anyone should order if they've never had good pho before. 888 does an excellent version of this staple Vietnamese bowl of noodles, the broth deeply fragrant of rich beef, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and sweet star anise. It's a very complex and harmonious flavor with each spoonful. The soup will also have layers of thinly sliced, rare flank steak (simply cooked by the hot broth), beef tendon, tripe, and brisket. It's meaty, but still light and with constant new flavors unearthed with each sip of the broth. You also have the typical pho noodles: thin, pretty short and fairly filling, flat noodles at the bottom of the bowl. While eating this soup, I like to add a good dose of bean sprouts and ripped up basil leaves, which your kind server will bring out prior to serving the soup. My bigger half likes to squeeze limes into his soup... which I understand adds additional tang, zing, and freshness to your broth, but I've never been a huge fan of dispelling savory flavors with all too much lime (sue me, I know what I like). After a few tastes of this delicious soup, I also enjoy adding little spoonfuls of the hot pepper sauce located at the end of the table. A little of this goes a long way, but definitely adds another dimension to enjoying your delicious pho. 
Bún bò Huế
3) Bún bò Huế: If you are aching for a punch of spicy, then this is your soup. Warning: despite the note at the bottom of the menu that you can request more or less spicy flavor for your order, this dish is sort of an all in type of soup for those that really crave heat. Wikipedia tells me that Bún bò Huế is a soup famously born out of old imperial capital of Central Vietnam, Huế. The deeply developed broth is created from simmering beef bones for a long period of time, and then adding different spices and flavors including lemon grass and shrimp paste. But beyond having a very well developed broth, the first thing you will notice is the firey red color of the soup. A first taste, and the heat is a little numbing, and then as it saturates your taste buds and the intense heat will begin to subside, revealing the more lighter flavors of the lemongrass, and that delicious fatty beef. The soup is in fact topped with mounds of the fatty beef, perhaps a little too generous at times, since it is competing with the knock out punch of the broth. Further down the rabbit hole, you'll notice that the noodles of this dish are not those of the typical pho dish above. Instead of flat, short rice noodles, what you'll receive are delightful, springy, chewy fat rice vermicelli. They are bout the size of large spaghetti, but add another element of texture to the soup that I actually enjoy more than the noodles of classic pho. Slippery, chewy, and dancing with the heat of the soup, this is another definite must order.
Pho Sate
4) Pho Sate: Let's just say that you like the idea of getting a spicy soup, but aren't too jazzed at the idea of burning up your taste buds with the offering above. You also would like to stick to something that utilizes the same base stock as the classic pho above, but maybe with some minor adjustments. The pho sate satisfies all of these needs. My bigger half tends to get this when he's not feeling the pho or the bun bo hue. It's the same complex broth as the pho, the same flat, small noodles, but the soup is flavored with the addition of peanuts, and tomatoes. Obviously, what's produced is a slightly rounder soup base, and then of course, the nuttiness of the crushed peanuts. The slightly less spicy broth is also just enough to add a little kick to the whole meal. 
Hủ tiếu Nam Vang
5) Hủ tiếu Nam Vang: This is my new favorite order. When the lovely waitress comes around to take your order, if you want something really special, ask for the hủ tiếu Nam Vang, but then ask if you an have the noodles that come with the bún bò Huế. It'll cost about fifty cents extra to get the different noodles, but in my opinion, the change of noodles really makes this a damn near perfect bowl of soup. The soup itself is made of a pork base (I think). It's sweet, savory, and just as complex as the previously mentioned broths that accompany the bun bo hue and the pho, but this time I also get the flavors of a bit of seafood, perhaps a bit of dried shrimp and squid went into the making of this broth. Likewise, the items found floating in the soup include slices of fish cake, lovely spirals of cooked squid, large shrimps, and thin slices of pork. A heaping handful of bean sprouts, and a bit of basil, and you have a wonderful salty, sweet soup. Since you've had the guts to ask for a switch hitter of thick vermicelli noodles, you're going to also be in for an extra treat, with those springy rice noodles, no longer drenched with spice, but picking up the pork and seafood flavors of this very mild broth. Of course, as I delve more and more into the Hủ tiếu Nam Vang, the little additions of the hot chili sauce add another note of enjoyment to the soup. One bite: springy noodles, sliced pork, chewy, fresh, perfectly cooked squid, and that silky, unctuous broth. Doesn't get much better.
By the way, when your check comes, you'll rarely go over about thirty dollars or so. Such a steal. So if you're really a big fan of pho, and all things delicious in the land of soup and noodles, give pho 888 a try, wave to Santa on your way there, and tip your waitress well. Lot of magic in this fairly unassuming eatery on Route 1.

Pho 888
136 Newbury Street, Site 7
Peabody, MA 01960
(978) 535-8339

No comments:

Post a Comment