I just got back from dinner at Pho Bac, the new Vietnamese restaurant located at Fairmont Shopping Center adjacent to Anna Knapp Plaza in Mt. Pleasant, and I'm happy to say they serve the best pho (the famous Vietnamese soup of rice noodles and meat in a slow-simmered, complex beef broth) I've found in the Charleston area. Okay, so Charleston only seems able to support 2 Vietnamese restaurants at a time. Even as Pho Bac opened, Binh Minh in North Charleston closed. Binh Minh and Kim Long, also in N. Charleston, were the only two true Vietnamese restaurants in the Charleston area the last couple of years. The owner of Pho Bac is also the owner of Kim Long, so I suppose a Vietnamese cuisine monopoly has now been established in the area.
I never liked the pho at Binh Minh, and the pho at Kim Long went downhill after their pho specialist defected to the Golden Rivers Chinese Buffet, establishing it as the area's best bet for pho for awhile, strange to say. And as much as I love pho, paying for an entire super buffet just to get a good bowl of it was far from ideal.
All of this is to say, I did not let my hopes get too high prior to my first visit to Pho Bac. My pessimism proved to be unwarranted. Not only does Pho Bac offer the best pho I've had in Charleston, it ranks right up there with the best I've had, period, and I cut my teeth in the pho shops of Charlotte, which boasts a very large and vibrant Vietnamese community and restaurant scene.
Pho Bac is, as its name implies, a true noodle house. The menu is short and simple, featuring pho, a couple of other noodle soups, bun (Vietnamese noodle salad), and a selection of broken rice dishes in addition to a few appetizers, Vietnamese iced coffee, and various fruit shakes with tapioca pearls (their take on bubble tea). As soon as my order of pho tai (pho with rare beef) came to the table, my hopes began to rise. The large bowl of pho looked and smelled the way good pho should, PLUS it was accompanied by basil, sawtooth herb, lime, bean sprouts, and sliced pepper--all of which I consider pho necessities, though I've found this array often suffers from omission or substitution at many restuarants. (As a side note, I was once served lemon with my pho at Kim Long, despite having previously been served lime at the same establishment. I consider lemon juice an inferior addition to pho broth, so I asked if they could bring me out some lime slices. Our server agreed and promptly brought out several more slices of lemon!) One taste of Pho Bac's pho promptly confirmed that this was the real deal. I quickly squeezed in a little lime, shredded a bit of basil and sawtooth into the broth, added a few sprouts, stirred a slice of pepper around the bowl for a few seconds, and then proceeded to slurp. Heaven! The Saigon-style broth balanced sweet, salty, and umami against the sour of the lime juice, the bite of the bean sprouts and fresh herbs, and the residual spiciness from the pepper slice. The rice noodles were just right, eminently slurpable but not overcooked, and the thin-sliced beef was tender and plentiful. But it's the broth that is the stuff of addiction. At its best, pho broth achieves a complexity rivaled by few other foods, and Pho Bac's version was very, very good.
My wife and I finished our meal with cold drinks, hers a jackfruit shake with pearls and mine a traditional Vietnamese iced coffee (with plenty of condensed milk), my traditional "dessert" at pho shops. Many like to drink the iced coffee with their pho, but I find the two compete against each other, so I prefer to delay the iced coffee until my bowl is empty. Instead, I've found Sprite is the perfect accompaniment to pho, with its sweet/sour balance never overpowering the delicate balance of the broth.
We also enjoyed an appetizer of Vietnamese-style fried egg rolls, and my wife enjoyed a bowl of bun with grilled pork. But the real star was Pho Bac's pho. Lovers of pho, of noodles, of Asian cuisine, follow that star to Mt. Pleasant. Let's make sure this place stays in business. I don't want to have to drive all the way to Charlotte ever again to get my pho fix!
Pho Bac Cafe
Fairmount Shopping Center
1035 Johnnie Dodd Blvd., Mt Pleasant, SC