Review: Pho Thai downtown brings the heat

A couple of months ago, I was cruising downtown when a taxicab yellow blur caught my eye. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the blur had words: “Pho Thai, Thai & Vietnamese Kitchen.” Beneath the sign was a banner exclaiming “COMING SOON!”

I’ll admit the name of the restaurant is not the most creative or original, but the idea of a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant right in the heart of Phillips Avenue piqued my interest. Naturally, when the restaurant finally opened a few weeks ago, I found myself strolling through the doors like Guy Fieri heading into the flames of Flavortown.

The restaurant has a moody atmosphere: maroon paint coats the walls, dark wooden tables constitute the furnishings and golden wire swirls cover the windows. Little classy lamps that are somewhere between a chandelier and a lantern drop from the ceiling.

The whole ambiance creates a look of elegance, which gave me a brief panic attack that the prices would be too high for a simpleton college student, like myself, to afford. My tension eased when I heard the Top 40 music playing in the background and got a chance to actually evaluate the menu.

The menu is comprehensive, ranging from appetizers to a variety of aromatic dishes. Most of the main courses are around $12. There’s enough variety to please everyone from the experienced world eater to the Midwestern dad.

Some things are simple, like the basic pho, and others veer to the wild side, like the pineapple fried rice. The latter is the most aesthetic option, as it is delivered in an actual sliced-in-half pineapple stuffed with a behemoth of rice and meat of your choice. It is delicious, and I borderline made out with the pineapple carcass after the fried rice filling was devoured.

Additionally, I gave the classic beef pho the good ol’ college try. In the past, I have tried pho at Pho Quynh and Lam’s Vietnamese Restaurant in Sioux Falls.

This pho is basic and tasty, but the beef meatballs are a weird, slimy texture and I could not find joy in them. (The menu also describes them as “beefball.”) However, the soup comes with slices of beef as well, which are tasty, well-cooked and not slimy.

Above all, my favorite dish is the panang curry. A chili pepper icon accompanies the name on the menu, calling diners to challenge their spice tolerance. If you’re like me, maybe you scoff at that little chili pepper icon. How spicy can it be?

The answer is that it is indeed one of the spiciest things I have ever willingly put into my mouth. But the best part is that it isn’t just spicy — it has immense flavor. I had to chug water to keep my throat from becoming a fire hazard, but I loved every minute of it. I normally stay away from things that are drastically spicy because they typically make your insides burn but actually retain little flavor.

This curry, however, roasted my tastebuds with heat and deliciousness. I still ended up taking some of it home (and it tastes just as great warmed up the next day.) I’m fully qualified to be on the next episode of “Hot Ones” after that experience.

I will be back at Pho Thai in the future and hopefully soon. It was affordable, flavorful and made me feel rich with the classy interior.

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