As excited as I get about a Vietnamese meal, I usually don't set an alarm for one. But I found myself doing just that before a recent visit to Pho Hoa.
I'd had lunch at this West Bank restaurant before and was mightily impressed with its namesake items — supersized bowls of Vietnam's traditional beef and rice noodle soup. I was curious, however, what Pho Hoa would be like at opening time, and that required an early start.
Pho is as natural a breakfast for many Vietnamese people as oatmeal or omelets are for others, and local Vietnamese restaurants tend to open early. But I haven't found one that opens earlier than Pho Hoa, where things get rolling at 7 a.m. (it closes early too, at 7 p.m.). When I arrived one Tuesday, the sun was just rising over the big box retail across Manhattan Boulevard yet the large, open dining room of Pho Hoa was bustling with a breakfast crowd slurping soup and sipping high-octane coffee drinks.
New pho joints are proliferating across the New Orleans area, and with its new building Pho Hoa at first appears to be part of that crop. But the regular clientele turning up at the traditional pho breakfast hour attests to a longer track record. Tim Vo opened Pho Hoa at its first address just down the street 25 years ago. It was among the first pho specialists in the area then, and for many years pho was about all it served. When the Vo family built this new restaurant, it also expanded the menu.
It's still very brief by the roadmap standards of other Vietnamese restaurants, but at least now diners can get a bun noodle salad or a rice plate with Cornish hens. Spring rolls, or goi cuon, are excellent — rippling fresh, taut and crammed with whole shrimp — and the less familiar rolls called bi cuon are worth checking out too. For these, rice paper encloses packages of shredded pork and chewy, jerky-like pork skin liberally coated in garlic. Another less familiar but traditional dish is found on the list of pho varieties. It's a duck soup called bun mang vit, made with rough-hewn, bone-in, skin-on chunks of the bird, slippery, spaghetti-style rice noodles and a raft of bamboo cut into matchsticks. It's a lushly aromatic soup made even more so with doses of minced ginger served on the side.
The specialty here remains pho, the base of which Tim Vo still rises before dawn each day to tend. Perhaps the moonlight works some magic, but in any case his broth is especially ambrosial. Just a shade darker than translucent, its surface dappled with droplets of grease, it has a richness and fullness all on its own and that only builds with the progressive addition of sauces and fresh garnishes.
This is heady, rejuvenating, energy-building, guilt-cleansing, smile-inducing stuff. And while a bowl of pho for breakfast may still be a bit unconventional for the Western palate, those qualities alone recommend it as a great start to the day.