The South First Street area was once downtown San Jose’s liveliest neighborhood, full of nightclubs, restaurants and bars. The SoFA area still has a pulse, but it doesn’t beat as strongly as it used to 20 years ago.
I have been encouraged, however, by a few businesses that have moved in recently. The latest is Pho 69, a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant that opened last month.
The restaurant serves a menu of Vietnamese standards (pho, vermicelli, rice bowls, banh mi) but updates them with modern touches for a clientele that may or may not be familiar with traditional Vietnamese food. Palo Alto’s Tamarine has done the same thing on a more upscale level and at a higher price point. Pho 69 is decidedly more casual but still has an appealing contemporary vibe about it.
The restaurant uses one of the most awkward slogans I have ever heard: “Something hot coming to your mouth.” Mind you, the restaurant’s name is Pho 69. Is that improper syntax or a deliberate, but ill-advised, attempt at a double entendre? I think I’ll just leave it there.
In spite of the iffy slogan, Pho 69 brings a big-city image to downtown San Jose that feels like, well, somewhere other than San Jose. The restaurant space is cavernous with soaring ceilings and a glass storefront that gives it a sleek and modern feel. The place has an urban-chic aesthetic that still feels warm and inviting. Local art will soon be hanging on the walls. There’s a big communal table for large parties. The best seats in the house may be the stools on the small bar overlooking the kitchen where you can watch the cooks ladle out broth for the noodle soups from hulking cauldrons.
And if the food is good, who cares about the restaurant’s marketing materials? For the most part, the food is good at Pho 69, making it a welcome addition to a stretch of South First Street with few restaurant options.
All the noodle dishes I tried were quite good. The standout was the “pho 69” ($9.55), a classic bowl of beef pho made with a deep, caramel-colored broth with a rich and wonderfully aromatic flavor.
The chicken pho ($8.45) doesn’t have the same depth of the flavor as the beef pho, but with a squirt of lime juice, fresh herbs and a little Sriracha hot sauce it became a thoroughly enjoyable bowl of noodles. My only complaint was that the pieces of chicken breast were a bit stringy. The menu advertises that the chicken is “free range,” but the term doesn’t mean very much. The standard is quite low.
Next to the beef pho, my favorite was “mom’s vegetarian pho” ($7.95). Vegetable broths are notoriously thin and watery, but this one was full of flavor decocted from shiitake mushrooms, onions and ginger. The dish came loaded with mushrooms, sliced carrots, tofu, bok choy and rice noodle. It’s a good bowl of noodles whether you’re a vegetarian or not.
From the list of starters, I enjoyed the sesame chicken salad ($6.95), essentially a Chinese chicken salad made with a light touch and sliced cabbage and crispy wontons. Adding grilled beef to the spring roll ($5.95) is a fresh idea, but I found the meat rather tough.
The spicy basil chicken over jasmine rice ($7.55) was a winner, with tender bits of chicken that actually delivered the advertised spiciness. Good, too, was the barbecue pork vermicelli bowl ($7.95): strips of savory pork served with two little crab egg rolls, salad, roasted peanuts and a sweetish nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Pho 69 doesn’t serve dessert but does offer wine, beer, Vietnamese coffee, Thai tea and, my favorite, coconut water with slippery basil seeds ($3.55).
Service is quick, and the friendly staff aims to please. Pho 69 is a good addition to a neighborhood hungry for good quality restaurants.
321 S. First St., San Jose