Pho 68: Complex, Comforting Vietnamese

There's always room for more Vietnamese places that serve pho soup and banh mi sandwiches. And so Pho 68 on New Park Avenue is a welcome recent arrival to the West Hartford restaurant scene.

It wasn't long ago that news of a restaurant serving banh mi in the Hartford area could get people — or at least me — pretty worked up. Those dainty and delicious Vietnamese sandwiches are savory and sometimes slightly sweet snacks that have absorbed a few culinary elements from the French colonial influence (notably the baguette). But for a time one could only find them at a barely visible spot on Park Street. Then another restaurant popped up nearby. And another. Then one in Manchester, and another in West Hartford. Soon it seemed like we were having a banh mi bonanza. It wasn't quite that. I can probably only name a half dozen places that make them in the region.

To a lesser degree, the same was true of pho soup, that very popular and deeply soothing rice noodle and aromatic beef broth concoction. But pretty much every Vietnamese restaurant serves pho, so there are maybe a couple dozen places to slurp up those noodles in the area.

Of course, there's Pho Boston, the dominant and venerable pho powerhouse. And then Pho Saigon opened near there. Now Pho 68 joins the bunch, not far away.

The banh mi at Pho 68 is among the best in the Hartford region (which, I guess, isn't saying too much, since there aren't so many others making it, but still). A banh mi thit bo (grilled beef) was served on a fresh and nicely crusty mini-baguette, with a few strips of slightly sweet and tangy beef accented with matchsticks of semi-sweet carrot and radish pickles, along with a few clusters of cilantro, a spear of cucumber and some chopped scallion. There were a few sliced jalapenos on the plate, and I slid them into the sandwich. Heat-seeking masochists can get busy with the sriracha (on each table). At $3.50, this has got to be one of the greatest lunch bargains in town, up there with the Jamaican beef patty. You won't be stuffed, but you'll be very satisfied.

The pho soup, with thinly sliced beef, a few pieces of tendon and tripe, is also a satisfying dish as the weather gets chilly. (Don't let the offal scare you; they've got versions that are devoid of weird bits.) Eating pho always reminds me of the movie Tampopo, where mystic seekers of the perfect soup expound on the virtues of broth. The stock is as much the thing as what goes in it. One hopes for a satisfying beefiness, a hint of star anise, a peppery edge, and the uplifting suggestion of cilantro. There was all that. And the thin slices of onion, tender meat and scallion made for something both complex and comforting.

Pho 68 serves more than sandwiches and soup. There are of course spring rolls, and grilled chicken, pork and teriyaki beef, and other dishes. I say stick with the banh mi and the pho. Orders of Vietnamese pancake (a sort of omelette stuffed with mung bean sprouts) and spring rolls proved to be a little on the oily side. There are also some interesting beverages on the menu, like salty lemonade, salty plum soda, and lychee and pearl drink, as well as strong and sweet Vietnamese iced coffee.

With the weather in full-on autumn-erratic mode, there's no telling if we'll be craving nurse-a-cough soup or go-on-a-picnic sandwiches and lemonade. Pho 68 has something for either forecast.

Pho 68, 589 New Park Ave., West Hartford, is closed Tuesdays. Information: 860-461-7069.


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