Pham Thi Truoc in Arlington is another place that has been open for more than a decade, and Ive tasked myself, once again, with finding out why.
Whether its true or not, I like to believe theres always one dish that keeps the people coming back.
The Vietnamese restaurant is named after chef Toai Nguyens great-grandmother. And dont worry if you cant pronounce it. Most customers just call the place PTT its even on the sign outside.
So whats keeping this place thriving? Could it be the appetizers?
The bi cuon ($4 for three), rice-paper rolls with shredded pork, and the goi cuon ($4 for two), rolls with pork slices and shrimp, both include mint leaves, making them cold and refreshing. The shredded pork, however, is too finely shredded, giving it a bizarre, gritty texture.
Maybe dishes like the com tam bi thit nuong ($7.50), grilled pork strips on rice, are the reason customers stay loyal. The pork is salty and sweet with beautiful grill marks, but I dont think its the dish Im looking for.
Perhaps its the vermicelli bowls, like the bun tom bo nuong cha gio ($8.50), served with crispy pork egg rolls and soft, moist noodles.
Then theres the com ga xui mu ($9), a marinated, deep-fried Cornish hen sitting on a bed of rice. And although its traditionally served with soy sauce, I thought it was best without any. Crispy, tender and perfectly seasoned, Id come back to PTT for another juicy hen.
Were getting close.
When I quizzed Nguyen about his house specialty beef stew, he simply said, Oh, thats Grandmas recipe.
I knew I had found my answer.
The hu tieu bo kho ($7.50) is the restaurants signature soup. And to say it has a flavor and complexity unlike any of the other dishes would be an understatement. The staff claims no one has a recipe like theirs, and they might actually be right. (They declined to disclose its secrets.)
The stew, like a beef pho, is extremely aromatic, its dark amber broth giving off the scent of beef, green onions, star anise and spices. Go ahead and fan the scent into your face.
The flavor is slightly sweet and very well-balanced, and no single ingredient overpowers each spoonful. Its served with beef so tender it falls apart in your mouth. And the portion is a hefty bowl youd be wise to move with both hands.
Keep in mind, Im not a soup guy. Ill have plenty of time for soup when I run out of teeth. But this soup Grandmas I truly believe is the dish that draws customers to Pham Thi Truoc.
And if theres just one set of words Im going to learn to pronounce in Vietnamese, it should be the name of that soup.