Pho So 1
1609 Centre Street NW
Calgary, AB T2E 2S2
Restaurant names are funny things. I’ve always wondered what goes through an owner’s mind when naming a restaurant. Are they trying to be catchy? Unique? Informative? Self-aggrandizing? Descriptive? I’m sure it’s probably a mix, depending on the restaurant. But i find them to be an interesting study. Think of some of your favorite restaurants – do you know why they named their restaurant what they did?
Pho So 1 has always boggled me, as to me, the “1” implies that there is a Pho So 2 somewhere. But there isn’t. Maybe there were grand plans for expansion that never materialized. Or maybe they meant Pho So #1..the more recently added tag line “#1 vietnamese beef noodle house” seems to imply this. Regardless, at the end of the day, they could call it “raw cow palace” and i’d go, assuming it was tasty.
Pho So 1 was the first Vietnamese restaurant i went to when i first moved to Calgary. Consequently, it’s tough to measure it’s place in the pantheon of Vietnamese restaurants in Calgary, because i have a tremendous soft spot for the food. However, i will try and objectively present, and distill, hundreds of visits into a fair review.
My favorite dish, that keeps me coming back to Pho So 1 is the Cha Gio (Fried Spring Rolls). Supremely crispy, the filling is a wonderful balance of pork and shrimp. A judicious use of tree ear, mushroom, and garlic leaves a very pleasant aftertaste yet doesn’t leave one with any one overpowering flavour. I’ve honestly looked for better Cha Gio, but have yet to find any in Calgary that i like more (though Pho Dau Bo is excellent too).
The Pho itself is decent, and I do occassionally indulge in Pho Tai, but my biggest issue is their broth. Too much MSG, making it a bit salty. It’s also not as rich, and balanced as other broths i’ve had. It’s passable, but nothing to excite the senses.
One of their special dishes though, the infrequently seen Bun Cari, used to be one of my favorites, and the first place i went in town for curry soup. Pho Anh Huyen down Centre Street has one too, but on their good days, Pho So 1 does a much better job. A blend of turkey, chicken, and potato, the curry is typically rich, flavourful, and full of thick noodles and a great blend of sweet and heat. However, lately, they’ve been quite inconsistent with this dish. On the day the photo was taken, it was extremely oily, and most of the veg had been overcooked. It was 20 minutes before closing, but i’d expect them to suggest a different dish if it wasnt still up to par.
My final favorite is the Bun Bo Hue, the special beef noodle soup. This is a adaptation (or, as some Vietnamese friends have said to me, a bastardization) of the popular Central Vietnamese dish that typically features a rich broth made with beef, and pork knuckle, and featuring a lemongrass flavour. The broth does have pork hock in it, making for a richer broth, but has been spiced up tremendously, masking any (if at all) lemongrass flavour. It’s more satay meets rich broth than anything else. But i enjoy the break from Pho with thicker noodles, the richer broth, and a bit of kick. It’s still pretty good stuff.
At the end of the day, Pho So 1 doesn’t manage to standout from their peers. I’d skip the satay, definitely order the spring rolls, and order the Bun Cari and hope for the best it’s a good day. The Bun Bo Hue (23c i believe) is a good alternative as well. I can’t promise that you’ll like it as much as i do, but I do encourage you to give it a try, instead of your regular Pho place. Even if it doesn’t end up as good as your special spot, at least you’ll learn a bit more about your tastes, what you like and don’t like, and more importantly, why you like what you do. And if you ever find who what the “1” stands for, definitely let me know. It’s been bugging me for 8 years!