I’ve had pho less than a mile from my house for more than a year, and I only recently took advantage. Chalk it up to a late-year cold-weather snap that finally threw me into action and sent me to Pho Ba Luu in NuLu.
I’d heard mixed, although mostly good, reviews, and what I walked away with was an impression that was something similar — I enjoyed the meal and will return, but it wasn’t without its kinks.
I walked in not long after opening on a frigid weekday and surveyed the sleek interior: cinder block walls with concrete floors, white industrial tile, along with two bay doors and modern amenities. Definitely an inviting space.
I had planned before entering to sit at the bar to check out the craft beer selections on draft, and I spotted said bar at the far end of the room.
Pho Ba Luu is fast-casual-style dining, so I ordered at the counter: chicken pho and a side of crispy pork and seafood rolls. The young woman who took my order asked if I wanted anything to drink, and I told her water.
I then glanced over and noticed no one was minding the bar, and I said, “I did plan to get a beer — is the bar open?”
She informed me that there were no draft options available, and if I wanted a bottled option I could order from her. I had already paid, so I decided to stick with ice water, but I decided to sit at the bar anyway, for the sake of having some personal space (not that the place was crowded so early in the dinner hour).
I collected my number, grabbed a water cup from the drink station, and found there was no ice in the ice machine. Ah well, not the end of the world, so I filled my cup and took a seat.
I had barely gotten settled and begun gazing at the back patio — which reminded me to return during warmer weather — when my steaming, huge bowl of pho arrived. Impressive. The young man who brought it also informed me my rolls would be along shortly.
The pho was served with a small bag of garnishes, including bean sprouts, three jalapeno slices, fresh basil leaves and a lime wedge.
I first tasted a bit of the broth, to get an unadulterated sense of what I was in for, and it was a pleasant lemongrass flavor, if a bit on the salty side. I added some extras and set to work.
The plentiful noodles were perfectly cooked and hearty, and my belly quickly warmed up from the frigid outdoors. The moderate helping of chicken was thinly sliced and had pretty good flavor.
I continued eating, and it was a good six or seven minutes before the rolls came out. In fact, as I dug into the pho, I nearly forgot about them, and suddenly they were there.
The pair of rolls were on the small side for the price ($6) and served with a thin fish sauce I found to be just OK. Luckily, while getting my water, I noticed a small sauce bar with two containers of hot pepper sauce, so I retrieved some of that. At that point, the tightly packed, flavorful rolls came alive.
With a nice crunchy — and spicy — side to go with my pho, I decided to double down on the pepper sauce and add some to the noodles and broth.
By the time I got halfway through my meal, I was warmer than I ever thought I’d be on that winter night.
Around then, the young woman who had taken my order walked over to the bar and said, “Did you still want a beer?” At that point, I had gotten past that notion but hated to waste her thoughtful gesture, so I plunked down $5 on a Tsingtao to help me wash down the spice.
All in all, my experience at Pho Ba Luu was satisfying, although by no means is it the best Vietnamese food in town. In other words, Vietnam Kitchen has nothing to worry about (not that it ever did).
That said, though, my guess is I’ll return during warmer months — something tells me when the patio is open and the sun is shining, the bar is staffed more often than not. The curry chicken, banh mi and spring rolls look pretty tempting.
Pho Ba Luu, located at 1019 E. Main St., is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. weekdays, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.