Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pho Boy

The interior of Pho Boy.

Aiming to bring authentic pho and Vietnamese street food to Edmonton, locally owned and operated Pho Boy opened on Whyte Avenue and 100 Street in December of last year. They focused on a soft launch menu until the restaurant’s official grand opening in February, meaning the time was taken to hone their selection.

My friend and co-worker has been a fan since the beginning, and I would see her food posts from Pho Boy on social media frequently. Everything always looked so good. Therefore, when I happened across a Groupon deal, I jumped on it. Rather than use it immediately, I set the voucher aside until August. I knew I’d be hanging out around Old Strathcona during the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, so it’d be the perfect time to go. Plus, by then, I hoped that any and all growing pains would have worked themselves out of the establishment.

The entrance is tucked away past the somewhat hidden front patio space.

Between shows on a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I ambled towards the address. I had recalled driving by the building on a previous occasion and seeing their round, bright yellow sign hovering above the sidewalk, but as we proceeded east, it didn’t stand out. In fact, I almost passed right by. The entrance is kind of masked by a somewhat gated front patio space. It’s actually a cozy sort of outdoor dining area that’s a bit tucked away from the pedestrians and traffic. However, it wasn’t nice enough that day for us to sit there, so we headed inside. One of the servers saw us a minute after we arrived. She seated us along the booth bench. Being later in the day, no more than a few of the other tables were occupied.

Playing the Street Fighter II arcade game.

The space is fun and well thought out. A sunset mural of Vietnamese farmers covers the one wall, while the other is plastered with vintage looking posters and the “Pho Boy” scrawl. The furniture consists of heavy, dark woods that keep the focus on the rest of the art and the unique lighting. There’s even a Street Fighter II arcade game sitting in the corner with a large TV screen hanging above it for other diners to watch players beat the high score.

Design aside, I was there for the food. At first the menu confused me because the Legend Vermicelli was listed under two different pages, but after consulting with the server, she pointed out that one included the regular spring roll with pork and the second was a vegetarian version without any meat. Either way, I was somewhat dismayed at the shortage of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp options that one would typically see at a Vietnamese joint. The only way of getting anything like that was with the Hero’s Feast ($17; it includes lemongrass beef and a shrimp skewer), which I was warned about in terms of portion size.  Regardless, I went with the latter. My boyfriend opted for the regular size Pho Boy Phoenix Special ($10).

While we waited, two other plates were brought out. One had a couple of large shrimp chips on it. The other had the usual pho garnishes: basil leaves, bean sprouts and a wedge of lime. Each ingredient looked fresh.

Our dishes arrived shortly after. To my dismay, the Phoenix Special was covered in cilantro (it’s my nemesis). Although the herb isn’t my boyfriend’s favourite either, he said he didn’t mind it this time. He stated that the heat of the soup made the flavour less apparent, and it worked well with the shredded chicken. I also think that his generous dousing of Sriracha sauce into the chicken broth may have helped to mask it. When I first took a spoonful of the soup to try it, I thought to myself that it had quite a pleasant kick of spice to it. That is, until I put two and two together and realized he’d already mixed in the Sriracha, so to be honest, I have no clue what the true broth tastes like. It seemed pretty clean though. There weren’t any grease bubbles in the bowl; it was just an aromatic and savoury soup that was perfect for a somewhat chilly day.

When it came to my Hero’s Feast, I was bracing myself. I thought that there was no way I’d be able to finish it. From what I was told, it would be huge. But, it showed up and I knew it wouldn’t be much of an issue. To start, I will contend that they do not skimp on the rice noodles or the veggies. There was a mountain of bean sprouts and julienned cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, and lettuce sitting atop the vermicelli. Yet, I had my eye on the prize. After I poured every last drop of the fish sauce into the bowl and tossed the components together, I worked my way through the dish. Admittedly, the shrimp were lackluster. The texture of the crustaceans was rubbery. The kitchen fared much better with the lemongrass beef; well-marinated, a little bit charred, thinly sliced and still tender, the meat, along with the crispy Legend Rolls were the star of the show. Initially, I didn’t understand why the eatery would offer the Legend Vermicelli with nothing other than spring rolls. From all past experiences, the spring roll is sort of the after thought to a vermicelli meal. Here, they were pairing it with the noodle bowl as the single source of protein. After trying the Legend Rolls, I get it. They are succulent and they provide that umami flavour to the dish without having to go the distance that other Vietnamese restaurants so often do. On my next visit, I know that the spring rolls will be enough to satiate my hunger.

Did Pho Boy wow me? They excelled in some ways (the crunch of the Legend Roll was unlike any other spring roll I’ve had) and there’s certainly room for improvement. Overall, I’d say it was decent. The food was satisfying, the prices were fairly reasonable and the service was stellar. Like their menu, Pho Boy is just slightly off the beaten path, but it’s one that is worth taking at least once.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Next Act

My PB & J burger - it was awesome!

My PB & J burger – it was awesome!

The Next Act (@NextActPub) had been on my radar for a while. I had been told by a friend that they make the best mac and cheese in the city, and the restaurant had also made The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in both 2013 (No. 61 & 62) and 2014 (No. 49). Needless to say, it was a must try. However, it kept getting pushed back until I could find the perfect opportunity to go to Old Strathcona (I don’t go there often).

As it happened, my favourite Edmonton festival, The Fringe, rolled around in August. During a full day of shows the first weekend of the festival, we had plenty of time to kill between two of them, so we planned to go to The Next Act for lunch. Issues ensued with our first show of the day and, despite running around all morning, we missed it, so we trudged our way to the restaurant earlier than intended. Since it was hot out and we were sweating bullets, we opted to skip the patio and sit indoors where there was air conditioning.

The interior of The Next Act.

The interior of The Next Act.

Looking very much like a traditional diner with a bar added in, it’s lined with booth tables along the walls and has raised tables and bar stools all situated in the middle. The decor is a little dated, but everything is kept clean and in good condition. We grabbed the last small booth available and our server greeted us with a big smile on her face as she laid out menus on the table. Honestly, I was so beat that I couldn’t even peruse the items right away. Instead, we sat there fanning ourselves with the menus for several minutes, trying our best to cool off.

Eventually, we relaxed and started eyeing all the possibilities. They are touted for their Director and Critic burgers as well as their grilled cheese sandwich, but neither of us went for those. My friend ordered the Cornmeal Crusted Halibut sandwich and I selected the PB & J burger (the only one without a showbiz related name), both accompanied by a side of the House Salad. Water and beer – I was so excited to see that they had Crabbie’s Ginger Beer – were also imbibed.

The House Salad is a great mix of greens, pea shoots, almonds, grapes and strawberries with housemade white balsamic honey vinaigrette. The vegetarian side was a nice balance of bitter, sweet and tart. I did not sample my friend’s halibut sandwich, but crusted with cornmeal and layered with sundried tomato salsa, arugula pesto, mixed greens and mayo, I was told it was delicious. Afterwards, I mentioned to people that I ate the PB & J burger here and I was met with looks that bordered on disgust, but, if you think about it, it’s just the whole idea of a savoury and sweet pairing. A thick, juicy burger patty topped with crunchy peanut butter, bacon jam made in-house and cheddar cheese, it was awesome! I will probably try to replicate as best I can at home because I want to eat it regularly.

On a quick note, we loved the art work on the walls. I can’t really remember the artist’s name, maybe CJ, but I do recall our server saying it was the work of one of the other staff in the restaurant. A mix of modern silver framed photographs and circular painted canvases, the pieces were sort of otherworldly and real, and surprisingly more affordable than I would have thought. The colour helped to liven the decor up, too. My guess is that the artwork is rotated regularly.

It took forever for me to give The Next Act a shot, but I finally did, and I’m certain that whenever I find myself on Whyte Avenue in the future, it will now be one of my go to choices. The stellar food and service with a smile left me beaming by the time we left.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment’s involvement in the local community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of The Next Act.