4917 Penn Ave
M,W,Th: 11-2, 5-9; F-Sat: 11-10; Sun: 12-8; Closed Tu.
I’ve been meaning to go to Pho Minh for a while, and frankly I’m not sure how I went almost 12 years in the city, never going there. I have to admit, I’ve been a Tram’s enthusiast for some time now and really just haven’t gotten around to breaking the habit. However, I am aware that there are all these diners out there who prefer Pho Minh adamantly, and so I finally took the time to find out why.
I think of it like this –
Mineo’s : Aiello’s :: Tram’s : PhoMinh
And maybe I am not the best food reviewer, because I am also partial to Mineo’s and have been ever since my first bite as a freshman in college. I keep trying to give Aiello’s the fair shake, but I just prefer Mineo’s every time. I’m not sure if it is an experience/familiarity thing, or if Mineo’s really is just better to me. The sauce at Aiello’s is a might bit better, but the crust doesn’t live up. And then there’s the cheese, and…
OK I am getting sidetracked. This isn’t a review about Squirrel Hill Pizza wars; this is a review about Penn Avenue Vietnamese. To be fair, I only have eaten at Pho Minh once so far, and I usually give a restaurant 3 tries before writing it up. In this case, I think Pho Minh is clearly quality and so I’m writing it up early, even though I have yet to plumb the depths of the menu.
The menu itself is pretty well filled. For example, they have many different kinds of Pho, with all different types of meat combinations that you can choose from. I really like this, as it kind of reminds me of an expanded Ramen shop in Japan. And gives the impression that they know their way around the Pho. I ordered the mixture of rare and well done beef, which was good. Honestly, the broth could have had more intrinsic flavor before my additions of plum sauce, chili, and basil, and the noodles arrived in a clump that I had to shake apart (only a very minor criticism, since they were perfectly cooked). However, the beef was certainly tender and delicious, and overall it was quite a pleasing meal. True to that, my dining companion really enjoyed his pho too.
I also got an order of spring rolls. See, for my first time here I wanted some direct comparisons to Tram’s, so spring rolls and pho of course. The spring rolls at Pho Minh had a much lighter wrapper than at Tram’s. Truthfully, last time I was at Tram’s the wrapper was perhaps a bit too chewy, but here I think the wrapper was so flimsy that it just resulted in a mess. My spring roll contents were all over the place, so much so that I had to develop a technique for eating it — a strategy. Kind of a pain! But taste-wise they were fab. Also, they came with a dipping sauce that was more liquid-y and less peanut-y than at Tram’s. Still tasty though.
Overall, in spite of their obvious overlap, it comes down to Tram’s and Pho Minh just being a little bit different, in the atmosphere and in the tastes. And you can pick which one to go to based on your preferences for things. I had the strangest sensation as I sat down in Pho Minh that I was out to eat at a restaurant in a city other than Pittsburgh, like I had been transported to some other American town with a little Vietnamese hole in the wall. Probably this is because it is surprisingly nice for its surroundings (Penn Ave restaurants are the best that way). Pho Minh has a nicer atmosphere overall, so if you can’t handle the sometimes intimidating Tram’s guy, or you like your restaurant to have a little bit less of a cafeteria feel, then you should go here. The menu at Pho Minh’s seemed larger too, and I need to do much more exploration before I can make a statement about food quality overall since all I explored was good ole pho. However, at first blush the flavors do seem more defined at Tram’s, particularly in the soup broths, so I definitely have some hypothesis testing to do with regard to noodle bowls, rice dishes, etc. In the end, I think my battle lines may be drawn just like the pizza. I like Tram’s. I just do! I love its grittier atmosphere, intense front man, flavors, and all-walks-of-life crowd. Pho Minh is delicious, no doubt, and I recommend going there, oh yes, but for me the Tram’s is where it’s at.
Try out all the different kinds of Pho! I’ll get back to you about the rest.
Try the coconut juice! It has a little coconut jelly thing in it. Delish and refreshing! Also, make sure you drink at least some of it while you are eating your main course, because it plays off the Vietnamese flavors really nicely. And if you get something spicy it will cool you down.
** cash only**