The perfect bowl of pho does not exist in Boise. Even the city's best bowl of pho is a rung or two down the ladder from the mediocre stuff you might find at a Vietnamese roadside stall. That said, on a cool, rainy spring afternoon, attacking a steaming bowl of pho--chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other--can be just the thing to right the day.
Pho Bac's corner space across from Capital High School at Goddard and Cole roads is the kind of place that's perennially a restaurant, though not always the same one from year to year. It's a fairly nondescript building, anchored in a sea of asphalt, and that generic feel extends inside. Pho Bac's black-and-white checkered floors, black vinyl banquettes and black tables could easily be the set up for a sub shop or burger joint or Tex-Mex restaurant. But Pho Bac claims the space as its own with a few decorative Asian flourishes on the wall and a table set that's distinctly Southeast Asian: a caddy of plastic chopsticks and wide, metal spoons, as well as a huddle of hoison, chili and fish sauces.
Though the pho menu is long, with 13 choices in all--most are various combinations of beef, with seafood, vegetable and tofu options--the menu in general is just a few items. In addition to the beef noodle soup options, you'll find four app choices, three noodle dishes and two rice plates. No Chinese food alternatives. No baguette sandwiches. And curiously, no chicken anywhere.
The food followed the menu's simplicity. Slices of barbecued pork ($6.95) gave off a slightly sweet aftertaste reminiscent of char siu, and its side of rice was the sticky and chewy kind that proved impervious to the damage a night in the fridge can do to leftovers. The cha gio Vietnamese spring rolls ($6.50) were thin, tightly rolled and sliced bite-size just like their Saigon counterparts.
And as for the pho ($6.45/$8.95), thinly sliced pieces of gray beef and quartered gray meatballs floated in a functional broth that tasted as though it had been stretched too thin and left deliberately underspiced in an effort to please a Western palate. Using the requisite side condiments, I doctored my bowl of pho--a couple drops of chili sauce, a squeeze of fish sauce, a pinch of lime--and built the flavor to my own preference. That kind of tinkering, though, only goes so far in pulling together the dish as whole. But what's missing is subtle--subtlety that's the difference between just-add-water chicken noodle soup from a can and a ladle of grandma's homemade version.
While Pho Bac is a fine pho stop, there's nothing to set it apart from all the other fine pho stops in town. My advice on how to find a pho fix: geographical proximity. And if you're in the Capital High area, Pho Bac stands up next to its Boise peers respectably.