Sure, you could check out The Pho 5 for its oversized bowls of beefy pho, its slurpable vermicelli and its tempting summer and spring rolls. But don’t snub the tacos.
As slick nouvelle-Vietnamese cooking is trending, The Pho 5 offers simpler, more straightforward fare, in a sliver storefront on Third Avenue near 39th Street. The mood is fast-casual, and lunch customers often order to-go, but if you snag a table and savor your meal, you’ll find a lot to like, from the giant bowls of soup to the modest prices.
Everything is taco in New York City these days, and The Pho 5 has risen to the Instagram challenge. Two soft shells are piled with fillings like tofu and mushroom, fried catfish and grilled chicken, shrimp or pork, each buried under a thatch of bean sprouts, cilantro, lettuce, cucumber slices and carrot strips and dabbed with a mayo-Sriracha sauce ($8 and $9).
The Pho 5 opened quietly in February, with nary a presence online, but word must be getting around: tables and takeout are both in high demand during the peak lunch period. (The place belongs to a New York City chainlet but No. 5 has no website.)
Seating accommodates about 30 people, offering mostly backless stools with a few pew-style benches and tables for four. The noise level is low, allowing for easy conversation, and while the wait staff turns over tables at a good pace, there is no pressure to pay up and move on.
It’s easy to walk past Pho 5 without realizing it’s there. Glance through the narrow window, however, and the first thing you notice is the parade of supersized white china bowls. They hold pho (that’s pronounced more like “fuh” than “foh” or “fah”), or vermicelli-noodle dishes, which have no broth but are doused in a classic sweet-vinegar sauce.
When one of those bowls is placed before you, you may be tempted to think, “Guess I’ll take home most of this for dinner!” But polishing it off is not a problem. The grilled pork version of pho ($11) held a dark, fairly rich broth and perfectly cooked noodles, which deserve to be eaten on the spot, before they get soggy. A small side bowl of Thai basil, sliced lime and bean sprouts invites customizing.
The vermicelli dishes we tried, including fried catfish ($9), cried out for more punch, maybe just more basil, cilantro and mint.
The appetizers were a bright spot. The rice-paper skins of the summer rolls ($6), served cold, were bursting with vermicelli, green papaya, cucumber, carrot and basil. The rolls come with a choice of proteins; we ordered the pork, which was on the sweet side and had a nice char but ended up being a faint seasoning for the noodles. A rich peanut-based dipping sauce came on the side.
The crunchy shells of our roast duck spring rolls (two pieces for $5) contrasted nicely with their mellow filling, although the taste of the duck was again somewhat elusive. These come with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. Traditional fried spring rolls, their stuffing augmented by bits of pork, are $6 for four pieces.
The rice dishes ($10) fall on the perfunctory side. The “grilled pork chop” version came not with the advertised chop but with a hillock of thickly sliced juliennes that seemed to have been fried and then roasted, leaving them nearly crisp and with most of the fat cooked out of them. These plates also include a hefty scoop of white rice, a few morsels of steamed broccoli and some sliced cucumber and tomato. A small bowl of sweet and sour sauce comes on the side.
There’s also an assortment of banh mi, the classic Vietnamese sandwiches ($7.50) traditionally made with a sub-roll-size baguette whose crust is somewhat softer than the French version. The bread was freshly baked and fragrant but its interior closer to Wonder bread texture than a baguette. The grilled chicken banh mi we tried was hefty yet unacceptably dry.
Drinks include Vietnamese iced coffee and Thai iced tea as well as American sodas.
The Pho 5 is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and weekends from noon to 9 p.m.: 594 Third Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets; (917) 388-2259.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.