The majority of the Vietnamese foods we enjoy most in the United States come from chefs who hail from cities familiar to our ears like Saigon and Hanoi. Pho Tu Ech, however, started in Phan Thiet, the capital of the Southeastern Binh Thuan province. Pho Tu Ech was in business for a decade in Phan Thiet before reopening in Falls Church.
Falls Church may be a city known for its Vietnamese eats (after all, it’s home to Eden Center), but it’s always refreshing to find dishes that are difficult or impossible to locate at other restaurants. Yes, Pho Tu Ech has all the usual suspects, cha gio, pho and vermicelli bowls, but its greatest strength is its dishes from the sea.
The best way to start a meal at Pho Tu Ech is with grilled mussels. Though the menu says the bivalves are topped with scallions, pork and peanuts, they’re actually stuffed with them. Each mussel is an explosive little package that crunches with crispy pork cracklings, as well as the aforementioned scallions and peanuts. A lighter hand with the scallions might allow for a clearer taste of the unusual pairing of meats.
I have a deep affection for Vietnamese fish cakes. For those who’ve never tried them, they have little to no funk of the ocean. Think of them as more akin to petite chicken patties in an array of shapes and sizes, with myriad flavors. They receive a worthy showcase in the banh canh cha ca, or fish cake rice noodle soup. The clear broth is light and sweet, in fact, even for those who aren’t wild about seafood, it would be an appealing sip. Thick, rounded rice noodles, somewhere between udon and the noodles you’d find in pho, fill the bowl. There are hard-boiled quail eggs, which pop as you bite into them. But the fun is in the fish cakes, two varieties of them—long slices that would be great on a sandwich, and peppery, popcorn-shaped chunks.
There’s also seasonal fish ready to be picked apart with your chopsticks. Mine was under-seasoned, but the flavor of the soup comes mostly from herbs on top anyway. Fried garlic and fresh cilantro wake up each bite with opposing dark and bright flavors. There are chiles too, which add a light whack of heat to a few bites.
Diners seeking a spicy soup will do best to order the bun bo Hue, a potage from the central city of Hue. I’ve had bun bo Hue spiced with chile paste or chile oil, but never before heated up with chile flakes. It’s an uncommon way to prepare the dish, but it worked for me, bringing heat into every spoonful of the broth. The thick noodles are the same as the ones in the banh canh cha ca, and they take on the chile flakes admirably. So do the slew of meats in the soup. There’s everything from thinly sliced rare beef and pork knuckle to pork roll and gooey, tooth-sticking pork blood. Part of the appeal also lies in the deluxe side plate of veggies and herbs. There are the predictable blanched bean sprouts and squeeze of lime, but also big, sexy shiso leaves, which light up the soup with their bright, mint-like flavor.
The same plate was supposed to come with the pho I ordered, but its absence was just part of the disappointment stemming from the more common soup. I ordered the oxtail pho. The meat clung to the bone a little too tightly to wrest free with my chopsticks and I ended up having to grab it and bite off the too-firm meat straight from the bone. The broth itself didn’t impress either. Though sweetly beefy, it was missing the aromatics I desire—I tasted no hint of star anise, clove or cinnamon, which I imagine were present, just too subdued. A little less salt and a little more spice would have done the soup a world of good.
The pho wasn’t the only miss. Spicy tamarind wings were probably once crisp but were so bogged down in overly sweet, gloppy sauce that I couldn’t tell. The spice in the dish’s name was also missing in action, leaving something best compared to bone-in Chinese-American sweet-and-sour chicken.
But most of the dishes I tried at Pho Tu Ech were just fine, if not inspiring. Com suon ram, described on the menu as caramelized baby back ribs over rice weren’t the clay pot dish I expected, but were perfectly respectable pieces of pork in a sauce that reminded me of Chinese cha siu. A plate of grilled beef over rice was less sweet and even betrayed a hint of spice in its juicy, lemongrass-flavored chunks.
Pho Tu Ech boasts some dishes that are definitely worth a trip, but it’s best to stick to the harder-to-find options. Next time, I’ll be informed enough to try the banh thai vac Tu Ech, for example, crystal dumplings which hail from Phan Thiet. Dishes listed under “House Special” seem to be the most reliable (it’s where I found both the fish cake soup and bun bo Hue), and are more likely to please than ones that you can find just anywhere. After all, you can go, well, just anywhere for those. Go to Pho Tu Ech for the dishes you won’t find at the pho purveyor down the block. // 7263 Arlington Blvd., Suite H, Falls Church
See this: Eat under a chandelier at this otherwise casual restaurant. The mobile near the entrance will keep your eyes occupied before the food arrives.
Eat this: Grilled mussels, banh canh cha ca, bun bo Hue
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