245 Silver Lane, East Hartford, (860) 568-7770, pho-99.com
Some seasons seem to demand certain foods. Summer calls out for lobster rolls, Italian ice and burger stands. The arrival of fall makes me hunger for slow-cooked stews and root vegetables. Spring inspires a desire for something green and alive, salads, asparagus, maybe some fiddleheads. The frigid depths of winter — and the snow banks and ice that never seem to go away — make many of us crave bowls of hot and comforting soup and steaming broth. For me, that means pho, the ever-more-popular Vietnamese soup made with beef broth and rice noodles, and enough fiery heat to blast out my adenoids.
If I were an urban planner, I'd suggest that every city (maybe every neighborhood) needs — in addition to a good bar, a good pizza place, a nice market, a bakery and a few other non-food things — a Vietnamese pho place. (That probably illegal hypothetical proposal might get voted down at the charter-revision meeting, but I'd give it a try.) Unlike a lot of other potentially exotic foods, pho soup seems to have endeared itself to all kinds of people, not just Vietnamese families or thrill-seeking food fanatics. It's got a kind of charm similar to soup from your Jewish grandma, or your Italian grandma, or your Jamaican grandma, or whoever made you warming stuff when you were sick and sniffly.
Pho 99 is one of a few Vietnamese places in East Hartford. Like a lot of pho restaurants, Pho 99 focuses mainly on soup. Aside from some spring rolls, they don't serve much else. Pho is the main attraction. Pho 99 is at the spot where a very good Puerto Rican restaurant called Humacao used to be. For fans of that eatery, don't fear, Humacao has just moved down Silver Lane a stretch. And for adventurous eaters and cooks, Silver Lane remains a destination; there's a very good Korean restaurant down there (Goong) and a couple of Asian markets. A few Indian and Pakistani restaurants have come and gone from the strip in recent years. Hopefully another one will return.
On the stereo Willie Nelson was singing "It Was a Very Good Year," a song associated with Frank Sinatra, when I stopped in recently. And the Americana- and soul-tinged oldies kept coming after that. I'm down with Vietnamese pop, too, but the music selection brightened my day a little. Small touches are something Pho 99 pays attention to. They've redone the interior significantly, adding cool and colorful little light fixtures above the tables and on the wall, injecting notes of warmth into the stripped-down atmosphere. Pho is about the little touches, too. The soup is generally served with a plate of herbs and add-ons that can be stirred into the broth, adding a chill or a crunch or a flash of peppery heat, depending on your taste. Bottles of sriracha and jars of sambal (another less sweet chili paste) as well as fish sauce, soy sauce and hoisin allow for further personalized flavor augmentations.
The pho at Pho 99 is good. The broth isn't quite as knock-you-in-the-face with the flavors of ginger and star anise as some places are. But those subtle notes come through. The slices of beef in my large bowl ($9.99) were plentiful, and the meat had been carefully trimmed to what you might call American tastes. This isn't always the case; many pho joints serve up beef that's a little more fatty or marbled with cartilage than some diners expect. I found the beef at Pho 99 to be one of the selling points. Also, the plate of sides — mung bean sprouts, pungent basil, sliced jalapeno peppers and a few lime wedges — was very fresh and flavorful.
A tofu spring roll appetizer had large cubes of bean curd swaddled in crisp lettuce, all wrapped in a clear springy exterior. This was served with a sweet hoisin dipping sauce with crumbled pieces of peanuts providing a crunch of texture and a note of earthy flavor.
If the cold weather persists, and even if it doesn't, a bowl of pho at Pho 99 might warm your spirits as we await the arrival of actual spring.