Vietnamese noodle soup, also known as pho (pronounced "fuh"), is a popular meal in the Northwest.
With more than a half-dozen pho restaurants to choose from in Federal Way, The Mirror set out to find the city's best.
As a whole, the pho experience is similar wherever you go. The quintessential bowl of pho comes with rice noodles, thin-sliced steak, and green and white onions, all stewing in a beef broth that's flavored with ox tail, beef bones and spices. Pho can be garnished with bean sprouts, basil leaves, sliced green chilies and a wedge of lime, all served on a plate that accompanies the soup.
Variations include pho with meatballs, flank steak, brisket, tripe, tendon, seafood, chicken or even tofu. Many diners like to spice up their soup with chili oil or chili paste. Standard condiments include hoisin sauce and Sriracha sauce.
Pho began as a street food in Vietnam in the early 1900s. Vietnamese refugees brought the dish to other parts of the world, especially in the years after the Vietnam War.
Other Vietnamese restaurant staples include appetizers like fried egg rolls, or spring rolls stuffed with veggies and shrimp. Also common is banh mi, which is a soft French-type baguette filled with grilled chicken or pork as well as cilantro, shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, green pepper rings and mayo. These sandwiches put Subway to shame with a lower cost, higher quality bread and tastier ingredients.
I recently sampled a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in Federal Way. Of the places I tried, here are the ones that stood out. It should be noted that the servers were friendly and brought my meal within a few minutes after ordering. A bowl of pho and a soft drink usually averages under $10.
Perhaps the most commercial of Federal Way's pho restaurants, Pho Tai's extensive menu is tough to beat. The soup has a bolder broth and goes heavy on onions (which can be omitted by request). The short and fat spring rolls are packed with vermicelli noodles, sprouts and shrimp, and the peanut dipping sauce is thicker than average. The banh mi sandwiches are stuffed with your choice of meat and veggies on soft Vietnamese baguettes. Noodle salad bowls are like pho, but without the broth, and often come with a fried roll and fish sauce. The menu includes a full range of teriyaki dishes as well as a kids meal: meatball pho with a soft drink. The service can be a little hit or miss, depending on how busy it is. But if you're a pho beginner, or dining with non-pho eaters, then Pho Tai is a place to start.
Address: 31513 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way. Located between 312th Street and 316th Street near Barnes and Noble.
Of the Vietnamese restaurants in this report, Linh Son feels the most authentic, from the indoor decor to the food. I've eaten here several times over the years, and the food and service are consistently good. The pho is traditional, with a savory broth and a good balance of standard ingredients. The sandwiches and spring rolls, however, set Linh Son apart. The rolls are long and thin but densely packed with shrimp, a thick slice of pork and veggies, and are served with a side of tangy peanut dipping sauce. The banh mi sandwiches are the best in town. For about $4, a hearty baguette stuffed with grilled chicken and veggies — along with a recommended dab of chili paste — is a true lunch bargain.
Address: 31830 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way. Located near the northwest corner of South 320th Street and Pacific Highway behind Harbor Freight Tools.
Crazy Pho Cajun
If jambalaya and pho had a baby, it might taste like the cajun crawfish pho, pictured above. I've never eaten pho like this. Along with the rice noodles and bean sprouts, this version of the soup included shrimp, crawfish and sliced sausage. Diners can choose between mild, medium or spicy. I chose the sinus-clearing spicy, and it knocked my socks off. I'm already a spice-head, and I literally had a buzz when leaving the restaurant. Next time, I'll get the medium. The spring rolls were some of the plumpest I've seen, and came with a different twist: each roll had a strip of tempura inside the crisp veggies and rice paper, served with standard peanut sauce.
In addition to traditional Vietnamese offerings, Crazy Pho Cajun's menu includes straight-up Louisiana grub like a Po' Boy Sandwich, smothered catfish, gumbo, red beans and rice, and etoufee. The prices are slightly higher than other pho restaurants, but then again, Crazy Pho Cajun walks to the beat of its own drum.
Address: 32034 23rd Ave. S., Federal Way. Located off South 320th Street in the UW Medicine complex across from Target.
Pho Than Brothers
This place had the most stripped-down menu, limited only to varieties of pho and tea, with no appetizers like spring rolls. The broth in the steak and brisket pho was milder and less sodium-rich than competing restaurants — and that can be appealing to those who don't want their fingers swelling up like sausages after eating. Unlike some pho restaurants, Than Brothers' version went light on the onions. This was appreciated, because even as an onion lover, too many onions will mask the other flavors like basil, lime and cilantro, all while leaving you reeking like an onion. In my visit, I heard two other customers also ask for spring rolls. A pho fanatic will rank a restaurant based on the quality of spring rolls and the accompanying sauce. If Than Brothers added spring rolls to the menu, I might become a regular.
Address: 31434 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way. Located between 312th Street and 316th Street.