While I was waiting in line at Pho Co., the busy new upstairs vendor at the Public Market House in Portland’s Monument Square, someone behind me leaned in to ask the woman behind the counter at Kamasouptra if the place was any good. She nodded but gave the questioner the old behind-the-back-of-the-hand inside scoop about the wait time, namely that it could be long: “It helps to call ahead though.” I was only three people back but downgraded my expectations.
Once I got to the front of the line, I was told the pho ga ($7.50) I’d ordered would take seven minutes. I asked about the artichoke tea (because, wouldn’t you?), and the friendly server taking my order immediately got out a tea bag and cup and told me she’d give me a sample, since it was my first time at Pho Co. I found this kindness touching.
My pho ga (the chicken variety of the Vietnamese noodle soup for which the eatery is named) took a little longer than seven minutes to be ready, but not so long that I was annoyed. I was too busy reading my book and drinking artichoke tea and wondering if I’d somehow Rip Van Winkled and missed the part where the world learned about artichoke tea, which really was as light and sweet and refreshing as my server had suggested.
I walked away from the counter thinking that the set up was a little different from the usual pho, namely that the portion was hearty but stopped short of the quart-plus of broth most places seem to serve. The cup of soup, brimming with scallions and chunks of chicken, came with a plastic bag of bean sprouts, lime and basil (all key to my pho eating enjoyment), and my server had also put small cup of a sweet Asian sauce in the bag and a packet of Sriracha. This last condiment is something I always put in my pho – and I eat a lot of pho – but the broth from Pho Co. looked and smelled so enticing that I gave it a taste before squeezing the packet into it.
It was startling. The typical pho broth is thin and lightly flavored; really it’s just the medium for the lovely rice noodles and chicken and herbs and peppers to soak in. This broth was rich and sweet with ginger. This broth could stand on its own. I haven’t stopped thinking about this broth for the last 24 hours.
The meat, too, was full of flavor and, almost more importantly, had a texture that gives. The chicken in pho ga often feels as though it was cooked at a frantic pace. This meat almost seemed roasted. It was also in perfect proportion to the rice noodles. Hands down, this is the best bowl of pho I’ve had in Maine and certainly ranks in my top three of all time.
Pho Co. only opened a few weeks ago, so the wait time is likely just a case of working out the kinks. Or maybe it has to do with making a bowl of pho that’s above and beyond. It doesn’t matter to me; I’ll be back every chance I get.
And I’ll take some items to go with me next time. There’s a case on the counter with packaged spring rolls ($4 for vegetarian, $5 for chicken or shrimp) that looked unusually fresh. Or I could get dumplings ($5) or pineapple fried rice ($7.95) to go. Another possibility I noticed as I was walking away after paying a compliment to my server: pho broth with fresh herbs as a drink to go.
It is the month of diets or, at least, eating light, is it not? Based on my impressions last week, I might be willing to go on a liquid diet if it involved that broth.
WHERE: Public Market House, 28 Monument Square, 2nd floor, Portland, 409-5822
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday
WAIT: About 10 minutes
PARKING: Street parking and paid lots
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes