Pho Thanh & Café
2108 N. 4th St.
Coeur d’Alene, ID
“Nobody home, ha, ha ha!” These were the words of the host as I entered the front door of Pho Thanh & Café Vietnamese Restaurant on North 4th Street in Coeur d’Alene. “Ah…just kidding” he grinned. A few minutes after I settled in and ordered an older couple walked in. “Nobody home, ha ha ha!” he cackled gleefully. “Ah…just kidding.” Turns out, this was part of his routine and he was laying it on everyone who walked in the door.
Pho Thanh is a family-owned establishment, and I’d like to imagine the host must be the favorite kooky uncle of the bunch. Sau Nguyen and family established their café in 2004 in the former Skippers and GW Hunters building near where I-90 crosses 4th St. The Nguyens, including their 10 children, had previously lived in Spokane, where they ran Pho Tai Café. Perhaps their move eastward was prompted by the fact that there was no competition – Pho Thanh was the first Vietnamese place to establish itself in North Idaho, and the place has been booming ever since.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine, let’s review the basics. The specialty dish is pho (pronounced “fuh”), which is a steamy soup consisting of seasoned beef or chicken broth made from scratch, clear rice noodles, bean sprouts, green onions, white onions, and the main ingredient, which is your choice of round steak, meat ball, soft tendon, or chicken. If you’re feeling a little experimental, you can choose to have your pho with beef tripe or oxtail. Fresh basil, hot peppers and lime wedges are served on the side for seasoning to your own taste. Condiments include hoisin sauce, red hot Sriracha sauce, and even hotter chili oil.
The first time I found myself dining at Pho Thahn was a few years back, shortly after they opened. My roommate and I had nasty colds at the time and decided the hot steaminess sounded good for our aching sinuses. We were seated and we began examining the elaborate little set-up at the end of each table: a basket full of bottled condiments, the little jar of oily chili paste, a bin of plastic chopsticks in paper wrappers, a neat pile of soup spoons. A colorful chain of plastic flowers hung brightly around the room, and big, gaudy art panels were placed randomly around on fresh white walls. The atmosphere was unfussy but appealing, complete with the Nguyens chatting away in their native Vietnamese.
Our pho arrived and I noticed that the beef splayed attractively across the top was rather on the pink side. I soon realized that that was how it was served – the intense heat of the broth continues to cook the rare meat until it’s done, allowing it to retain its natural juiciness. I added a brave dose of chili paste and tasted the pho – woah! The intensity of the seasoned broth and aromatic quality the fresh basil combined with the heat of the chili made for an incredible, sinus clearing experience. Delicious.
“What kind of pepper is this?” I asked my roommate innocently, pointing at the bright orange slice with my chopstick. “Ah well, I like spicy anyway” I thought, and before he could answer, I popped one in my mouth. His eyes widened. “Oh, my god, that’s a habanero, you can’t just eat it like that!” Habanero. Hot. Suddenly my tongue was ablaze, my eyes were bright red and welling with tears, and my pulse was like thunder, throbbing in my ears. I spat the pepper out and my evil roommate laughed as I emptied my water glass, then guzzled his down. The feeling was so intense all I could do was sit there speechless with teardrops pouring down. The place was full of people, and most of them were probably wondering what kind of terrible news I’d just received. I tried to disguise my trauma from the waiter as I asked for a to-go container – there was no way I was finishing my pho if I couldn’t even taste it. I must not have been the only fool to end up in habanero misery – I noticed the little buggers are no longer served with each order.
In addition to 9 varieties of pho, Pho Thanh has some other tasty options to explore on their menu, all within the $7-9 price range. My all-time favorite is the #15, the Com Ga Xao Xa Ot, which translates to Steamed White Rice with Lemon Grass Chili Chicken. Another option is an order of “Bun” which are long vermicelli rice noodles, served with your choice of char broiled pork, beef meatball, shrimp skewer, or lemon grass chicken. Intriguingly, you can order this dish with pieces of crispy deep fried eggroll swimming on top, which is the #22, “Bun Cha Go.” It’s an unusual combination, but it is texturally magnificent and instantly addictive.
One menu item I’ve learned that I can’t live very long without is the fresh spring rolls, served cold, not fried like an egg roll. It’s made with a clear rice wrapper containing a handful of cooked-then-chilled rice noodles, two plump shrimp, a thin slice of pork, and some fresh mint and basil leaves. When dipped in the accompanying sauce, a sweet blend of hoisin and peanut, these little babies are pure heaven. Two orders (four rolls) will set you back a mere $6 and make a wonderful, filling lunch served a la carte.
Like most family-run places, service here is always fast and amazing. I frequently pop in to make take-out orders and even during a rush, I’ve never waited more than a few minutes. Near the door is a table piled high with odd publications such as restaurant equipment and office supply catalogs, presumably for take-out customers to peruse while they wait. Always, just as I get bored enough to actually start paging through the Costco Connection, the smiling host is handing me my order. “Nobody home, ha ha ha!” he laughs as more hungry customers file in for their fix of delicious pho.
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