"To make good food, you have to remember two things," says Toan Le, who runs Now Pho at 1195 South Federal Boulevard with his partner, Nhan Tran. "The first thing is flavor, but the second thing, which most people forget, is aroma."
But Tran remembered that when she came up with the idea for Pho Two Bowls, which presents a diner with bubbling-hot pho broth in a stone bowl, a separate bowl with rice noodles, and a platter loaded with meats and other toppings. As the stone bowl leaves the kitchen, Tran adds fresh-grilled ginger and green onions to the broth, so that a cloud of intoxicating steam accompanies the server to the table and envelops your senses before you dig in. Pho served this way has advantages beyond the smell, Le notes: The noodles don't get soggy as quickly, the broth stays hot longer to help convey the rich and complex flavors, and the rare filet mignon and marinated minced steak cook more quickly when you add them to the bowl.
The Pho Two Bowls rings in at $23, considerably more than what people are used to paying for a brimming bowl of noodle soup at a joint on Federal. But the ingredients are high-quality, which is immediately noticeable in the flavors and textures, and the serving provides enough food for two people. Now Pho also offers traditional pho for $10 or so less — a good deal if you're just dropping in for a quick lunch, because no matter which pho you order, you'll be getting the broth (made with beef as well as beef bones, a step that some restaurants skip) that won a pho-tasting competition at last summer's Dragon Boat Festival, outscoring several more prominent restaurants in the area.
Le isn't a restaurateur by training; he's a real estate broker who still maintains his day job while managing Now Pho. He and Tran became new restaurant owners after Phong Le (no relation to Toan), the founder of Pho Le, decided to sell his eatery and retire, and asked real estate broker Le to keep an eye out for potential buyers. Le talked to Tran, and the two decided that they were the right people to take over. Tran is an accomplished cook with an arsenal of recipes from her family and the town of Bac Lieu in southern Vietnam, where she was born. Le had worked in restaurants while going to college in Denver and New York, and he still had fond memories of the traditional food of Vietnam, where he lived until he was seventeen.
Le and Tran took over Pho Le in late 2017, and over the past two and a half years have put in new floors, booths and tables and given the space a colorful paint job. They ran the restaurant under its original name for a year before changing it to Now Pho in time for the Lunar New Year in 2019. Le says they chose the name in part to capture the Buddhist notion of living in the moment. "When you enjoy good food, you live in the moment," he explains.
Pho Le was known for offering many different styles of noodle soup in addition to pho, and that tradition continues with Now Pho. Le says that he and Tran kept most of the dishes on Pho Le's menu, making sure they used the freshest, best ingredients for each one and working to improve the flavor and aroma. They also added new items to expand the offerings by 20 percent. "Our mission is authentic dishes with innovative ideas," Le states, pointing to the phrase on his restaurant's printed menu.
So in addition to pho (which can be ordered with several uncommon toppings, including oxtail, wagyu beef, marinated minced beef, or a combo of lobster, shrimp and scallop), Now Pho offers hu tieu nam vang, a pork-broth bowl served several different ways; the house special includes cha siu pork, quail eggs and shrimp. Or you can try the bun bo Hue, a silky soup made with beef, lemongrass and shrimp paste that's traditionally served with cubes of cooked pig blood and pork hock. Here you can get it with oxtail or even rare filet mignon added.
Mi Quang is another noodle bowl that's not quite a soup, a central Vietnamese dish that comes with sesame rice crackers. "We serve it with very little broth, but people from the middle of Vietnam ask for even less," he says. "When you taste the broth, it's like art — you don't need much." Now Pho's mi Quang sports broad egg noodles and comes with pork ribs and shrimp or bone-in chicken.
Everything at the restaurant is made from scratch, even the crab cheese wontons, something often added to Vietnamese menus simply to appeal to Western tastes. Tran's wontons are stuffed with an herby mix of cheese and real crab, so much that it explodes out the top when the wonton is fried. The sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, too, is housemade, and isn't the typical neon red.
Tran and Le recently opened a second Now Pho, at 1500 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton; the hours there are less expansive and the menu is smaller and more tailored toward American tastes, since the Vietnamese population is much smaller in that area than in the neighborhoods along South Federal. At the original Now Pho, Le says, "our customers are 50 percent Vietnamese and 50 percent everyone else."
For those customers, Now Pho is almost a community gathering place. The South Federal spot stays open well past the usual 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, when night owls keep dropping in and the kitchen keeps serving until 3 a.m. But it doesn't close for long: On any day of the week, you can start slurping noodles at 9 a.m., making Now Pho a refreshing breakfast stop, too, if you're looking to live in the moment beyond lunch and dinner.
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