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What Makes a Great Pho Restaurant?

September 28, 2010

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Updated 10-15-10. We all have our own reasons why we like Vietnamese pho, and we have our own reasons to keep coming back to our favorite pho restaurant(s.) The reasons we like our pho restaurants can be as varied as pho recipes themselves, but when one boils it all down (no pun intended) to the pho essentials, there are really a finite number of reasons why a pho restaurant deserve your business and my business. Here’s my take on what makes a great pho restaurant. You are welcome and definitely encouraged to add your own take in the comments section.

Please be aware that, though I’d like to think of myself as a fair person, I realize that each of us do have our own certain personal preferences and biases. Our preferences may be directly or indirectly influenced by other factors such as where we live, where we come from, what we believe in, and sometime our own economic situation of course. Who says pho is not a religion? Maybe not yet, but the critical mass is already swelling. We can all feel it.

So with the prelude out of the way, let’s look at a couple of recent polls running on LovingPho.com. You are welcome to take them if you haven’t done so. Click “Vote” under the results to take a poll and add your voice among other pho zealots (thanks Andrea Nguyen for the term) and tell us what a great pho restaurant means to you. Why these two questions? Well the first poll, “How important is authentic/good pho to you?,” is repeated here just to set the stage for the fact that, despite my own expectation (and maybe yours too,) there are almost 1/4 of the people who took the poll (20% + 4% saying good pho is subjective or not important) feel that it’s ok to have less than authentic/good pho.

How important is authentic/good pho to you? Pick 1 or 2.

  • Absolutely 100%, nothing else will do (54%, 282 Votes)
  • Very important, but will try fusion/other stuff (31%, 163 Votes)
  • Authentic/good is subjective. I know what I like (20%, 107 Votes)
  • Not very important. I liked most pho I had (4%, 20 Votes)

Total Voters: 526

Vote

The second poll, “Your perfect pho restaurant?,” is really where the meat is (again no pun intended.) Here it is.

Your perfect pho restaurant? Select up to 4.

  • Great quality (92%, 533 Votes)
  • Large portions (29%, 169 Votes)
  • Fresh garnish (59%, 342 Votes)
  • Cleanliness (64%, 369 Votes)
  • Good service (55%, 316 Votes)
  • Low price (32%, 183 Votes)
  • Has other Viet foods (14%, 81 Votes)
  • Plays Viet music (2%, 14 Votes)
  • Large Viet clientele (11%, 64 Votes)

Total Voters: 578

Vote

Go ahead, take the polls if you haven’t done so.

OK so let’s pick them apart. The results discussed below are based on poll results as of September 28, 2010. It is expected that the general trend of the results will continue. I’ll continue to track and make updates as needed.

More than 50% say great quality and fresh garnish are the most important pho restaurant attributes.

  • Great Pho Quality. Eighty eight percent (88%) say great quality is important. While it is obvious that quality is of course important, it is not 100%! This attribute is a tough one to judge for many non-Viet, but actually it’s pretty easy. Quality is like beauty, it’s in the eye, or the mouth in this case, of the beholder. Alright I’ll just rephrase it; Pho quality is in the mouth of the slurper. We all have our own measuring stick when it comes to pho quality, but even for non-Viet diners it’s pretty safe to say that as a group we all know what pho quality means. It’s what makes us keep coming back for more.
  • Fresh Pho Garnish. Sixty two percent (62%) say fresh garnish is important. Well of course! It’s what pho is all about. But the flip side again is interesting too. Thirty eight percent (38%) say they don’t care much about fresh garnish. Wow this really opens my eyes. My theory? Well assuming if one likes to have the garnish, then it has to be fresh; who wants stale garnish right? So one plausible explanation is, pho is so good in itself, many non-Viet diners don’t need/don’t want/can’t stand the garnish or care about the freshness of it. I would expect a very small number of Viet diners do not like fresh garnish so these folks do not contribute to the results.

Cleanliness is an important pho restaurant attribute, but it’s not necessarily what it seems.

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  • Pho Restaurant Cleanliness. Forty seven percent (47%) say pho restaurant cleanliness is important. I’m sure this applies to any other restaurants as well, but again what’s happening with 53% who say it is not important? Is our expectation that low, or do we actually get used to a “typical” pho or Vietnamese restaurant look and feel? It is what it is? I do know one thing: if the quality is great, cleanliness will always be secondary. For those who never had pho at a street stall on the streets of Saigon or Hanoi, you are missing the total pho experience. And you know what? I totally appreciate people taking time out to participate in this poll, but I now have a lot more respect for the pho zealots who voted quality above cleanliness. Keep on slurping.

Large portions, good service, and low price: restaurant attributes that can be important, or not.

  • Large Pho Portion and Low Pho Price. Thirty two percent (32%) and 36% say large portion and low (or affordable) price, respectively, are important. These two certainly go hand in hand because having one normally means having the other as well. What does this really mean? To me it means that, as Vietnamese food is already very affordable in the U.S., when you have the goodness of the all-in-one-meal Vietnamese pho, it is a great deal all around and very hard to beat.
  • Good Service. Likewise, 32% say good service is important. This is a non-pho attribute so I think it’s the reason why only a third says it’s important in this context. Let’s face it, a typical pho restaurant is not necessarily a fancy date destination, so you don’t expect much in the service department. The other 68% just say: “Let me have number 2 please, and a glass of water. That’s all I want.” See this poll below about pairing beverages with pho.

What pairs well with your pho? Select 2.

  • Cold beer (20%, 57 Votes)
  • Ca phe sua (iced or hot) (18%, 51 Votes)
  • Tea (iced or hot) (27%, 77 Votes)
  • Boba drinks (12%, 34 Votes)
  • Soda (9%, 25 Votes)
  • Salty preserved plum/lemon (8%, 24 Votes)
  • Water (33%, 95 Votes)
  • Che (5%, 13 Votes)
  • Other (sugar-cane juice, coconut juice,...) (10%, 30 Votes)

Total Voters: 286

Vote

Other Viet foods, Viet music and large Viet clientele are not key pho restaurant attributes.

  • Other Viet Foods, Viet Music and Large Viet clientele. At the low end of the important attributes spectrum are variety of Viet dishes (12%,) Viet music (4%,) large Viet clientele (21%) all of which to me have to do with the environment or ambiance. This is a pho poll so of course we don’t care much for other Viet dishes. We just want our pho! On the other hand, for those who took this poll, my interpretation here is that Vietnamese pho is reaching a point where the customers, I surmise to say, are knowledgeable and understand the dish enough to care a lot more about the pho they eat and not much else. That’s the way it should be in my opinion. Out of my own curiosity I included these non-pho attributes in the poll, and you are essentially saying: “Just give me good pho any day!” I’m with you on that.

So how am I doing “profiling” a pho zealot? And how do you see yourself among the pho faithful? If you’re thinking about opening your own pho restaurant, I hope you take note.

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