Dining out: Finding the pho at Tay Ho
Our server paused, raising the pen to her lip. Her eyes wandered down as her mind searched for the right explanation. We waited and watched until her face expressed its "Eureka!" moment. "The yolk," she explained. "It is mixed with soda and condensed milk." She smiled and waited for a response.
"So is it cooked?" my friend asked. She spotted the item, a curious drink that listed all of the above three ingredients ($3.95) and was intrigued. The server took the question as a serious safety concern.
"No, it is safe," she assured. "The soda has acid and the yolk is cooked." Satisfied and still intrigued, my friend ordered the drink, and it turned out to be a wonderfully viscous concoction. Rich in ivory color and custardy scent, it reminded us of a milkshake, less "shaky" and more slurpable through a straw.
It was a simple and pleasant discovery in a restaurant where the menu is concise, there's one house specialty, and most of the time the server also functions as hostess, busser, cook and cashier.
Pho Tay Ho is wonderfully homespun. It's long been on the radar of pho aficionados, lovers and seekers of the intoxicating Vietnamese beef noodle soup (pronounced "fuh"). For some, the place was a closely guarded secret, their hidden gem. Now after a recent move to a cozy refurbished house just down the street, Tay Ho is still a gem, but much less hidden and worth admiring.
First to the pho. It's in the pantheon of restoratives, hangover cures and invigorating meals, up there with chicken noodle soup. Sundays are a great time to go, particularly if Saturday night was harsh on you.
Tay Ho's pho stands out namely for the broth. Simmered for hours, it coaxes gentle flavor from beef bones, onions, ginger and other aromatics. At Tay Ho, these flavors don't fight for your attention as they sometimes can in the bowls of other pho houses. Instead they're beguilingly seamless. First there's the savory note of beef. Then a slight hint of cinnamon. Star anise rises after that, and then the rounded allium notes of cooked onion.
There's really no sweetness to it as the ingredients might suggest. Both the cinnamon and anise provide a warmth and a woody note (imagine anything from pine bark, or the scent of firewood in winter.)
There's the option of choosing your own range of meats: well-done brisket, well-done flank, rare eye of round slices, Vietnamese meatballs, tendon and tripe. Or, the menu has pre-set beef combinations. Either comes in the $5 small bowl or $6 large bowl. The large is quite large -- actually, so is the small. "Well done" is actually soft-braised slices of flank and brisket while the "rare" eye of round cooks gently as soon it meets the broth. The time the journey takes from the kitchen to our table is enough to poach it to a soft-pink center.
Tripe, as adventurous as it sounds, is more about texture than flavor, as it sits mingling with the rice noodles. But the tendon is worth discovering, since the translucent morsels create a richer broth, the way schmaltz (chicken fat) elevates chicken broth into the bedrock of all sorts of restoratives.
With pho, you essentially finish the cooking with the seasoning. Each order comes with a plate of fresh bean sprouts for crunch, Thai basil, sliced jalapenos and fresh lime for flavor. What you add is completely up to you. On the table next to the chopstick/spoon caddy are bottles of oyster sauce and sriracha (rooster hot sauce). You can even use the saltshaker without the threat of exile.
At times, though it does feel like you're the only one in the building when it's quiet toward the end of dinner. Service, though friendly, can be kind of sporadic with the delicately crunchy egg rolls and rice noodles ($6) arriving long after you polished off the gorgeously fresh shrimp salad ($4.50). Sometimes, dishes are forgotten in a barrage of ordering.
Once for example, only three bowls sat before the four of us. A different server, the other server's daughter, had arrived with dinner and noticed the gap. After explaining what we were missing, she walked back to the kitchen. Minutes later, she strutted back with the missing pho and explained.
"She said she forgot to write it down, that's why she didn't make it," the daughter said apologetically. "So, I said, um, 'then why don't you make one?'" her face contorted as if to say "well, duh." She shook her head.
We nodded and thanked her. We tucked into our piping hot bowls, slurping noodles and inhaling the herbal vapors. Our faces contorted, too. Eureka!
Hearty bowls of Vietnamese beef noodle soup in a homey atmosphere. Made-from-scratch dishes cost $5 to $6 including the pho and refreshingly satisfying shrimp salad.
Location » 1766 S. Main St., Salt Lake City; 801-466-3650
Hours » Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $
Liquor » None
Corkage » No
Reservations » No
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major accepted