A definite favorite! If I am in Cebu and eating out, you are likely to find me dining at only a handful of restaurants, and at the moment, Phat Pho is up in the top 3. I didn’t visit for the first couple of months after they opened to let them settle down, and despite all the rave reviews from friends and family, but when I finally tried their food, I was back 5 times in perhaps 12 days in Cebu. :) So yes, you can say I am a huge fan. A tiny space in the Crossroads Mall in Banilad (full disclosure, the owners of the mall are long-time friends, but that is NOT why I am writing this review), Phat Pho, one of several restaurants in the Abaca Group, has just 26-28 seats and is almost always packed with folks addicted to their delicious pho and other vietnamese dishes.
After five visits, I can honestly say I have tried 90% of the dishes on their menu, so more than most restaurant reviews I occasionally write, this one is based on multiple tastings of multiple dishes. First off, authenticity. The Vietnamese chef is behind the counter and cooking and tasting most of the dishes being prepared. On a recent visit, he cooked our stir-fried beef and I counted him tasting the sauce at least 4 times before the dish was done, which couldn’t have taken more than 3-4 minutes in total. This nearly obsessive compulsive behavior to ensure that it meets his obviously high standards is something I wish I saw more of in small restaurants. On more than one visit, we had the fresh spring rolls, with two kinds of sauces, and they were excellent. I used to frequent a Vietnamese place on a side-street in Melbourne for nearly a year while I was assigned there in the late 90’s, and I thought they had the best fresh spring rolls outside of Vietnam, but these ones at Phat Pho were pretty darned good.
Also on the menu are a selection of light, refreshing salads like this chicken salad above. Just the right note of crunch, protein, bathed in a light dressing that is near perfect in its balance of salty, sour and sweet… with the major exception being the use of green lemons rather than limes, as there is no steady supply of real limes in Cebu. So here is the only quibble with Phat Pho, that they don’t use real limes, and that does make a critical difference between very good and very, very good. On two of my visits, I brought several kilos of fresh dayap from Manila markets for the chef, and he was amazed to find limes, but despite my efforts to secure a steady supply for him, there is still no certainty of getting limes in Cebu for now…
Most of the folks who head to Phat Pho probably end up with one of several versions of pho that they have on offer. Their most basic pho bo with very thinly sliced beef is soul satisfying and their broth is quite delicious, slightly on the sweet side, but just slightly so. I really liked it. And have had it several times since. At PHP360++, it isn’t cheap, but it’s well done, hearty and satisfying, so it’s a good deal, in my opinion.
Other phos include angus beef, meatballs, chicken, etc. I have tried a few of these, but I like the basic pho bo best. If you dine at Phat Pho, and just have a bowl of pho and a glass of water, you can leave with a bill of say PHP400 or so. But if you have an appetizer or several dishes and some rice, and drinks, plan on spending a good PHP800-1000 per head. In the name of “research”, I have had 4-5 different dishes on every visit. Items that deserve special mention without a photo are the Bo Luc Lac or wok-fried angus beef tenderloin with cucumber, bell peppers and herbs — it was superb! That dish and a bowl of pandan rice with fried shallots is a wonderful meal right there. Their pho xao, or wok-fried noodles are also delicious. Their banh mi is the best I have had in the past year or so. Only their Cari Ga or curried chicken did not leave a lasting impression… it was good, but I wouldn’t order it again given the surfeit of other great dishes.
They also have chicken satay and a beef satay dishes that are both very good. An incendiary meatball and broth dish that is fabulous but unbelievably spicy. And finally, on my last visit, I tried their Bun, or cold noodle bowls with toppings of homemade fish cakes, meatballs, etc. and it too was very good. Particularly with real limes. :)
Their fried spring rolls are always well done and it is here that one has to wonder just how they manage to pull this all off. A huge staff (say 14 or so visible at dinner service for 26 seats!) apparently spends much of the morning and afternoon chopping away prepping for meal service. Mise en place is right on the mark, allowing very fast turnaround time when orders get in. A dedicated burner for their pho broth keeps a massive volume of broth hot and ready to go. I think I heard somewhere that they have a goal to get you your pho in less than a minute or two from the time your order goes in… They have a grill, a wok or two and everything is done quickly, precisely and with hawklike attention. I have always left this restaurant with a smile on my face.
The stainless shelves have their ingredients on display, including imported bottles of Vietnamese fish sauce, spices and other ingredients. The selection of beers is small but good, and they serve their cokes in the nostalgic small curved bottles. How to get a seat in this almost always packed pho bar? Be patient. Or get there really early or later in meal service. They don’t expect guests to dawdle, so order quickly, eat your noodles hot, and get out so others can have their turn. Not to worry, I understand they have plans for 2-3 more branches soon. If Phat Pho opened in Manila, there would be dozens of people on line for good reason. Congratulations to the Abaca group on their latest restaurant in Cebu!
Banilad, Cebu City