Amid a rain storm, 11-year-old Alice Levitt and her mother duck into whatever restaurant is closest to escape the oversize drops pouring down. It’s upscale and specializes in Vietnamese food. Alice orders the headline item, the soupe tonkinoise.
On the wet summer day, the rice-noodle-filled broth bolsters the girl for the rest of the day. More importantly, it creates a food memory so intense that it almost stings. The broth is sweet with long-simmered beef tallow and sings with hints of anise, cinnamon, and clove. Years later, Alice will learn that this exotically named soup, which made her think of South Pacific, is more commonly known as pho.
The young girl, of course, will one day be your friendly, neighborhood restaurant critic. The problem? I’ve rarely found a pho that even vaguely reminded me of that soupe tonkinoise in the three ensuing decades. For beef pho in NoVA, I’ve been impressed with Pho Saigon Oi in Springfield. But I had never found a chicken pho, pho ga, that had quite hit that sweet spot. Until now.
Falls Church, 2023
Owner Tony Le makes it no secret that Pho Ga Vang is all about that broth. Nearly every item on the menu is either centered around his liquid gold or comes with a small side of it to let diners know what to order next time.
Le learned his trade from his mother, who began working in a small restaurant kitchen in Westminster, California’s Little Saigon in the 1980s.
“My mom is Northern Vietnamese, so our style of cooking is more of that and with a mix of Southern Vietnamese style she learned while working in California,” the restaurateur says.
A California native, Le moved with his family to Philadelphia when he was 11 years old. He joined the family business — beloved Philly restaurant Pho Ga Thanh Thanh — when he dropped out of college. Since then, he’s cooked from Atlanta to Las Vegas.
But don’t expect the glitz of Sin City at the new restaurant, which began its soft opening in December and finally received its sign in early April. Pho Ga Vang is comprised of a handful of tables in the back of Eden Center’s location of Mr. Wish, a poetic connection for Le because a link in the boba chain is also next door to Pho Ga Thanh Thanh. Mr. Wish menus grace the tables along with those for Pho Ga Vang, making pairings of taro milk tea or peach fruit tea with a bowl of pho ga seem only natural. Or you can just enjoy the hot tea poured into plastic foam cups at the restaurant. That was my preferred match for a bowl of steaming broth.
The signature item is pho ga, identified in English on the menu as “traditional chopped chicken pho.” The broth, says Le, cooks for at least 15 hours and up to 20 before it’s served. The crowds that pack the small restaurant don’t prevent the staff from providing fine service. (Le himself served me on one occasion.) But it’s still best to arrive early. “I only make enough for the day,” says Le, explaining that it’s always fresh.
What diners receive is a bowl of love that’s far richer and more aromatic than its relatively clear appearance would foreshadow. I loved my grandmother’s Ashkenazi-style chicken soup, but it never achieved the deep, muscular sweetness of Le’s. His soup is everything I had been chasing since 1992, but in an unexpected poultry form. Instead of slices of rare beef, diners will find a chicken leg crosscut into chunks that jiggle with collagenous skin. Inside, the meat is tender and juicy on its own, and benefits mightily from a dipping sauce of lime, salt and pepper, and fresh chiles.
The sauce is presented on a plate alongside typical pho add-ons such as bean sprouts, lime, jalapeños, and basil. Each table has hoisin and Sriracha to further doctor up the soup, but I believe it would obscure what’s most compelling about the delicate broth.
For meat lovers like me, the single best thing on the menu is the priciest at $19.99. That said, I shared the oversize bowl with two other people, and we still brought home leftovers. The Pho Tony Special features everything I’ve already mentioned, along with fatty steak, brisket, and beef meatballs. That beef-tallow flavor I referenced earlier bleeds into the already irresistible chicken broth, making it even more robust. The brisket, in particular, is ruggedly beefy and worth a bowl of its own. Its time to shine will come. Le told me that he will soon debut a beef pho as well, which leans Northern Vietnamese in style, meaning lots of gingery flavor.
But not everything that won my affection at Pho Ga Vang came in a bowl. The fried egg rolls are excellent specimens thereof, with garlicky nuoc cham to accompany the meaty center. Rice plates are of special note thanks to mounds of unctuous, ideally crafted grains that pair beautifully both with the chicken dishes that accompany them and the bowls of pho broth on the side.
The fried chicken leg (com gà chien) has crispy, bronzed skin, and an admirably juicy center. But I was even more dazzled by the com gà nướng sả, lemongrass chicken. I had previously only had lemongrass grilled chicken as part of a Vietnamese noodle bowl. Far from the anemic slices of meat I was used to, Le’s recipe results in a deep-brown chunk of flesh that’s crispy outside and marinated well enough to result in a moist, herb-redolent center as well.
There’s no denying that Pho Ga Vang isn’t a destination for its ultra-casual ambience. There are seemingly endless options in Eden Center that look and operate pretty much like it does. But when it comes to a chicken pho that is made with heart, the new restaurant earns a drive from anywhere in NoVA.
Pho Ga Vang
See This: Slip past the line at the Mr. Wish drink store and get seated in the back. Keep your eye on the big screen at the back. The seemingly static art is subtly animated.
Eat This: Egg rolls, Pho Tony Special, lemongrass chicken rice platter
Open daily for lunch and dinner.
6767 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church
Feature image by Alice Levitt
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