Pho is an obsession among many people I know, particularly in Las Vegas. While the traditional Vietnamese soup is widely available in many U.S. cities, I never hear friends elsewhere talk so much about it as they do here, where I can think of several folks—none Vietnamese, by the way - who will unapologetically tuck into a big bowl 2-3 times a week.
If the soup was made by a religious cult, some of these people would likely get a tattoo, shave their head or wear a yellow caftan/short sleeve dress shirt/Elmo fanny pack just to avoid being cut off.
I’m not even sure I could get an accurate count on how many places there are to get pho around the valley, and that itself speaks to its popularity, which like many ethnic street food “ambassadors” has made Viet cuisine almost commonplace here in a way that bahn mi, spring rolls and bun/vermicelli have not.
Truth be told, though, I’ve never been among the addicts. To me, pho (pronounced ‘fuh’ in case you’ve been using a long ‘O’ all this time—don’t feel bad, I did for a while too) is a nice enough noodle soup, cheap and filling, with some beef, crunchy sprouts, Thai basil, lime and hoisin to offer herbal/sour/sweet accents. But hardly the “wake up in the middle of the night craving” stuff that is Sapporo ramen, a fine French onion gratinee, or even matzoh ball soup.
However, my mindset has evolved, as politicians like to say, after ordering the pho tai ($7.95) at Pho Sing Sing - a small, nondescript storefront sandwiched into a block of Jones Boulevard above Spring Mountain that is rich with dining treasures. Here, as at most places, the soup arrives as a big steaming bowl filled with barely-cooked beef, scallion, fresh cilantro, and accompanied by the usual ample plate of lime wedges, bean sprouts, basil bunches and pepper slices.
But you notice differences immediately: slivers of white onions, which mix with the noodles as you pick them; glistening, cloudy, complex broth (simmered for 16 hours, I later learn, which better integrates the star anise, cardamom and coriander flavors); tender and irregularly cut beef (not the usual immaculate slices). The rice noodles themselves are clean and chewy, not overcooked, clumpy and starchy as they often are.
Without question, this is the best pho I have had in Las Vegas.
As we looked at the menu, the server—one of two mature sisters who seem to do most of the heavy lifting here—offered to make a pho with seafood, something I hadn’t encountered before (chicken is a more common and arguably more authentic substitute for the multiple beef varieties). We demurred at that. But oddly enough, when my friend and I returned a week or so later, the same lovely woman was resistant to my questions about the specials (written in Vietnamese on a small chalkboard) and other intriguing offerings on the menu. “I don’t think you like it,” she said, the age-old phrase of Asians who don’t want Westerners rejecting traditional dishes they don’t understand.
I was curious about Mi Vit Tiem, “special egg noodles with duck leg, pickled vegetables, rice stick,” that I had spied on a family’s table on my first visit. The server (owner?) revealed someone had recently ordered that and then refused to pay because they didn’t like it. Only after my promising not to do so did she accept the order.
I’m grateful for it. The bowl arrived steaming with fragrance, laid atop noodles, water spinach, mushrooms, and a rich sweet dark broth that rewarded more with every spoon. The barbecued duck itself pulled off the bone with chopsticks easily, juicy and mild. Worth every penny of the relatively high $10.95 (even entrees here tap out below $13). I can’t imagine how someone who knew this classic dish could reject this version.
The efficiency of this room is something to admire. Evoking Hemingway’s Clean Well-Lighted Place, the tables are covered in easy-cleaning steel, with boxes of stacked spoons and chopsticks at the ready, along with hoisin and sriracha bottles. While most pho spots tend to be repositories of fake flowers and old calendars, here the walls are lined with plain mirrors. The most distraction you might face is from an elder of the family fumbling with the corner flatscreen’s satellite connection.
My friend and I also tried the “special” chicken wings—fragrant, crispy and dripping with sweet chili sauce—and the bún (vermicelli) with charbroiled chicken, egg rolls and pickled vegs. Neither excited me as much as the soups, but were good enough to make me want to return again and explore the menu further.
Smoothies and boba teas are also a specialty here, with 30 varieties that our server claimed were all made from fresh ingredients. I can’t verify that, but both the taro and almond/coconut smoothies ($4.95) we enjoyed were thick, rich and real tasting. Easily another addition to the list of cravings.
Pho Sing Sing opens at 9 a.m., plenty early to satisfy both traditionalists (it’s typically a morning meal) and the cravings of the cult.
Pho Sing Sing, 3409 S. Jones Blvd., 702-380-2999. E.C. Gladstone is a Las Vegas-based food writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ecgladstone. Go to nowimhungry.com and sipsavorswallow.com for more of Gladstone’s musings on food and drink.