'I'm on my 150th bowl of pho since we opened," proudly proclaims Ken Nguyen. "I can literally eat it every day."
Though the 29-year-old Pho-nomenal co-owner, who only opened in early April, is speaking to his own Vietnamese heritage, his enthusiasm perfectly sums up the modern American pho boom. In recent years, Colorado Springs alone has welcomed the likes of Pho Viet 1, Pho-N-Thai, I Love Pho, Pho 54 and Pho 5 Sao, with restaurateurs here sadly resisting the urge for the "Pho King" name found in so many another cities. (Remember: It's pronounced "fuh.")
When I'd talked to Nguyen late last year, I quickly learned how serious he is about his herbaceous, beef-bone broth bowls. He discussed travelling both the U.S. and Vietnam to study other versions, while also drawing influence from his and his wife Kim's respective family outfits: Pho-natic in Denver and Pho 888 in Aurora. We discussed his attention to ladling the ideal amount of "fatty water" (the oily top) with the lighter broth into each bowl, and also making sure all the spices, from anise to cinnamon, are balanced.
What I learned in two recent visits is that Nguyen has also chosen to fall on the sweeter rather than saltier side with the restrained use of rock candy (crystallized sugar) and drastic reduction of MSG (of which he still uses a little). It's a style he knows some purists will deride, but he says feedback thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.
And after slurping and chewing through the flank-, brisket- and filet mignon-sporting Pho-nomenal (all 12 versions are $8.50 for 88 ounces, $7.50 for 56, and $6.50 for 36) I'd place myself in the latter camp, especially considering the generosity shown with garnishing basil, lime, bean sprouts and jalapeño slivers.
A tofu-bearing vegetarian version, rendered from lengthily simmered veggies, offers its own simple appeal, while traditional bun noodle bowls, as evidenced by one topped in beautifully grilled shrimp ($10), fare as fine as others in town. And moving from bowl to plate proves more exciting, with a delicious soft-shell crab starter ($13) battered in a tempura-like baking powder and rice flour, then fried for dipping in sweet nuoc cham sauce. Vegetarian spring rolls ($4) were pleasant, too, with an oddly tangy, grow-on-you peanut sauce.
The grilled pork and egg roll rice plate ($8.50) sports thin strips of the meat, marinated overnight in oyster sauce, sesame oil, sugar, garlic, onions and lemongrass to lovely effect. And seafood pan-fried egg noodles ($13) — crispy, wonton-like noodles with shrimp balls and tilapia balls joining surimi, green lips and a bountiful veggie array — boast a likeable and light, chicken-based soy-oyster sauce effusing hints of basil.
While Lollicup-brand smoothies ($3.50) are predictably synth-sweet, cartoonish portraits of real fruit, the outfit's Thai iced tea ($3.50) is well-made, and Vietnamese iced coffee ($3) is elegantly presented with a drip contraption fit over a cup of "old man" condensed milk (named for its classic Vietnamese label). Poured over ice once steeped, it's nicely under-sweet, though chocolatey from a dark roast.
Lastly, for a place with a silly name and a $35, 220-ounce gluttonous pho food-challenge, the new-built Pho-nomenal features serious décor, gorgeously hypermodern with curvy chairs, light woods, a striking, angular central island half-wall. It's the right feel for a place you'd want to grab pho one day, or 100.