By Frank Sabatini Jr.
There is “restaurant” pho. And there is “homemade” pho. You’ll find the latter exclusively at Shank & Bone, which popped onto the North Park dining scene last February with a splashy, contemporary atmosphere uncommon to many family-owned Vietnamese restaurants.
“We wanted a modern design and menu so that we could bring our food to broader audiences,” said Han Tran, a native of Vietnam who owns the business with her husband and other family partners.
In speaking with her after my visit, she discussed the differences between the two types of pho, which explained why the broths in both the beef and chicken pho I tried with a lunch companion were so luxuriously deep in flavor compared to most.
Typical restaurant pho, she said, is made mostly with bones and certain pieces of meat. In Vietnamese households, however, richer cuts of meat such as oxtail or whole chicken thighs and legs are used in concert with the bones.
We ordered the beef pho with short rib. Served in a sizable bowl, it was ladled with thin vermicelli noodles and a hefty chunk of tender meat clinging loosely to a six-inch bone.
For the chicken pho, you get a choice of white, dark or both. We opted for white meat. I was immediately struck by the fragrant essence of the broth, which exceeded the flavor that long-simmered chicken yields. It turns out the broth is accented with star anise, cardamom and cloves, but just faintly enough to keep you pondering its mysterious allure.
Both bowls of pho were a step up from many others I’ve consumed over the years. And I liked that the broth is poured tableside. More so, after this seemingly endless cold spell in San Diego, it gave my body the thaw it needed.
The décor is bold and hip. It features a couple of shiny motor bikes, a linear display of rice field hats hanging from a wall, and metal chairs in paintbox colors.
Yet the dominating elements are two giant wall graphics; one is a street map of Saigon from 1922, and the other is an image of a revolutionary Vietnamese girl created by renowned Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey. Tran said the goal is to capture the robust energy of old and new Saigon.
That concept is further achieved with a menu replete with both classic and contemporary Vietnamese dishes. The former includes items such as rice noodle rolls stuffed with ginger beef, mint and basil; Viet-style beef stew; Saigon chicken wings; and banh mi sandwiches.
The grilled pork banh mi we tried offered an excellent crusty French roll stuffed with lean pork that is baked in marinade and then flame-grilled to order. Inside was the usual medley of julienne cucumbers, daikon radishes, pickled carrots, and fresh sprigs of cilantro.
We might have felt noodled out had it not been for the thoughtful staggering of our dishes and the variant flavors we encountered.
In our first round, we dove into the aforementioned rice noodle rolls, which hit our palates with lovely, discernible waves of ginger. We then moved onto the banh mi, followed by a bun bowl, which is basically a traditional salad of vermicelli rice noodles, fried shallots, crushed peanuts and mint leaves. Our protein choice was grilled shrimp, which were generously arranged on top.
For the pho, we chose thin noodles over the bigger flat ones. And there were plenty of them lurking in the bowls. So you may want to think twice about paying $2 for extra noodles.
Of the more modern twists is a “Chinese donut” that we ordered as an add-on to our chicken pho. Imagine churros without the sugar and cinnamon, served in a metal cylinder. You dip the fried dough sticks into the broth, much like sticking bread into a plate of spaghetti when you want to take a break from twirling noodles around your fork — or your wide soup spoon in this case.
Other modern offerings include “banh xeo” tacos with pork, shrimp, jicama, bean sprouts and mint; roasted bone marrow with crostini and cilantro chimichurri; and tempting versions of pho combining lobster tail with beef broth, or a combination of crab, calamari and shrimp in chicken broth.
Shank & Bone also presents happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, when select starters are $2, certain bowls are $6, and draft beers are $5. Though if you wander in with a shiver, you’ll be hard-pressed to pass up a steaming bowl of broth and noodles.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.