Tom Le’s shop was open for weeks before he put up an open sign or listed his business hours in the window. Even so, a steady stream of customers got wise and stopped in to The Pho Spot, the tiny new Vietnamese restaurant in Princeton Shopping Center, adjacent to Cross Culture and across the breezeway from Chopt.
Le unlocked the door to his 19-seater on Oct. 1. He saw it as a soft opening, an opportunity to fine-tune his recipes and stock his fridge and pantry properly with ingredients in advance of a full-blown grand opening sometime down the line.
Instead he found curious Princetonians hungering for a chance to tuck into a steaming bowl of pho (“fuh” is a generally acceptable pronunciation) while nursing a cup of slow-drip Vietnamese coffee. The response was so immediate and strong that he struggled to keep up with demand. Which is a nice challenge for a restaurant to have but a challenge nonetheless, and one that Le has worked day and night to handle since the day he opened.
Pho has been a featured dish in Vietnamese cuisine for more than a century. Traditionally it consists of rice noodles, proteins and aromatics in a long-simmered broth, often made with beef bones, and served with an array of condiments, as well as sriracha and hoisin sauces to dip meat into.
Le, 47, was born in Vietnam. He lived there until he was 9, when he settled in Tinton Falls with his family, but he has made countless trips back to his native country since then.
In Vietnam, and indeed throughout Asia, there are many restaurants that focus exclusively or almost exclusively on one dish. The logic is that if they make only one thing, they probably make it very well. That’s one reason why Le, when he was conceiving The Pho Spot, decided to keep his menu small.
So the only things on offer at start up were pho ($13 large bowl, $10 small); Vietnamese spring rolls (shrimp or tofu, served with peanut sauce, $2.50 per roll); Vietnamese coffee (hot or iced, $4); and a side of kimchi ($2).
Which is not to say diners at The Pho Spot don’t have options. Le offers customers a choice of beef broth and a vegetarian broth, and he also gives them a variety of ingredients from which to choose. The list includes pho standards such as flank steak, brisket and beef balls, as well as less traditional options like shrimp, tofu, chicken and mushrooms. For a $3 premium, they can also choose from among oxtails, filet mignon and short ribs.
Customers are welcome to request one of the ingredients or several, depending on their preferences. He says in the weeks since he opened, customers have ordered everything from mushrooms and tofu in beef broth to steak and brisket in veggie broth. He’s happy to accommodate them all.
“A lot of Vietnamese restaurants, when you go there you tell them you want to get different things and they tell you no, they can’t do it,” Le says. “When I was opening this place, I said I didn’t want to do any of the things that drive me nuts about most Vietnamese restaurants. In a Vietnamese restaurant, no one serves you one spring roll at a time. But when I eat out, I want one spring roll. So that’s what we have.”
Le isn’t a trained chef, but he has worked in the food service industry before. From 1996 to 2001, he owned and operated Le Bakery and Cafe in Shrewsbury. After closing the bakery, he worked in the Princeton area as a field sales manager for Samsung.
After more than a decade of that, he wanted a change. He developed a passion for good pho over the years, estimating that he has eaten pho in more than 150 places in Vietnam. So when a space opened up in Princeton Shopping Center, he decided to go for it.
First he had to develop a recipe for the broth. He started with a recipe from a friend who owns a restaurant in Philadelphia, fine tuning it to get the flavor he was looking for. “I have a very good palate, so when I eat pho at different places I have a good sense of what’s inside the broth, the ingredients they used,” he says.
To make the broth, he simmers beef bones overnight. In the morning, he takes out the spent bones and simmers the meats for the day’s pho. He says some places simmer the meat with the bones, but by not doing so he keeps his broth lighter.
Once the meat is done, he simmers a mix of spices in the broth to give it that signature pho flavor. The key spices, he says, are star anise, cinnamon and licorice, which he sources directly from Vietnam.
The vegan veggie broth is his own creation. Le says in addition to the spice mix he uses apples and pears to give the broth some sweetness.
Le, who lives in Jackson, is proud to say he makes his broths without monosodium glutamate (MSG). “When I told my friend I wanted to do that he said, ‘It can’t be done,’” Le says. “But we’re doing it.”
A steaming bowl at The Pho Spot comes with the ordered proteins and a nest of noodles at the bottom. Aromatics include green onion, cilantro, and recao, also known as culantro, which has a flavor similar to cilantro, but has broader leaves. Recao can be difficult to find and isn’t always found in pho in the U.S., but Le says in Vietnam it is an absolute must-have ingredient.
Typically, pho is also served with a side dish of condiments including mung bean sprouts, jalapeno, Thai basil, lime wedges and jalapeños. Le puts the sprouts and basil in the bowl, leaving only the jalapeños and lime in a small side ramekin. “It’s usually all on the side, but our tables are so small, there’s no room, so we put it in the bowl,” he says.
When eating pho, one is permitted, even expected, to slurp the broth up with the noodles. Some people add sriracha or hoisin sauce directly to the broth, but pho aficionados usually advise portioning some out on the side for dipping the proteins in. Le admits that he doesn’t even add lime directly to his pho, instead squeezing some out into the ramekin and dipping the meat into that.
Response to the soft opening was strong enough that Le had some difficulties keeping all of his proteins in stock in the early going. He says he’s close to figuring out how much of everything to order. Demand for tofu was especially strong — The Pho Spot used more than 50 pounds of it in the first two weeks. There are some traditional proteins such as beef tendon and tripe that aren’t on the menu yet, but Le says if there’s enough demand he will consider adding them.
Feedback has also been strongly positive to the highly focused menu. “People are telling me straight out, it’s so good, it’s so simple,” Le says.
The Pho Spot, 301 N. Harrison St., Princeton. Phone: (609) 356-0064. Web: facebook.com/thephospotprinceton.