Back in the ’90s, I’d hightail it down to Pearl Street’s New York Deli at the first sign of a cold. Reflexively, I’d order a big bowl of chicken matzo ball soup, sided with bagel chips, as a form of self-medication. The steamy, nutritious liquid would help clear the nasal passages, while the poultry and veggies would provide necessary sustenance to oust the virus.
Alas, the deli is long gone, and my current early stage cold drug of choice is pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup. When I was recently afflicted with the sniffles, I thought this ailment provided me with a good excuse to sample the namesake dish at Boulder’s Black Pepper Pho.
More upscale in appearance than your typical noodle shack, menu options here nevertheless read like a greatest hits compilation of unfussy Vietnamese fare. While some pho restaurants of old would only offer a beef-based soup, chicken, seafood and vegetarian options are on tap, and much of the menu is gluten-free. There are also salads, rice plates and the classic noodle bowl anchored by proteins ranging from tofu to grilled meat.
Friend Lisa and I kicked things off with an archetypical starter, a $5.95 pair of freshly made shrimp spring rolls. How could we tell it was recently prepared? The rice paper wrapper had a thin, silky texture, unlike the leather-like coverings that mark a roll that’s been sitting out too long. Mint leaves contributed a bright taste that accented the rice noodle filling. “Clean” best describes the flavor of the shrimp, which played nicely against the nutty tamarind dipping sauce.
Our amiable and informative server let us know that Lisa’s $6.95 (plus $2.50 for grilled shrimp) green papaya salad packed a fair amount of peppery spice. Certainly it left a pleasant mouth burn, but not enough to overshadow the delicate and refreshing qualities of chilled noodle and slivered fruit. The lightly marinated shrimp, seemingly perfumed with fish sauce, had savory, mouth-watering qualities.
Unlike some pho restaurants that offer a seemingly infinite variety of beef options, the menu here keeps it to a reasonable half-dozen choices. My $11.95 large combo bowl consisted of thin steak slices, meaty brisket and tripe that were about as good as you’ll find. Thin rice noodles were prepared to proper doneness. The plate of vegetable accompaniments wasn’t as expansive as you’d find in other locations, although it contained the requisite bean sprouts, chile pepper slices, fresh herbs and lime.
However, I felt the key component, the broth, needed work. It lacked full-bodied bovine flavor and seemed muddled. Most pho has a subtly sweet quality that I wasn’t able to detect in this interpretation. On the plus side, the large bowl provided enough for two meals.
Sweetness wasn’t a problem with our dessert, $4.95 banana tempura. Heating enhanced the sweet fruit qualities, and the fried coating was endearingly delicate. Warmth also brought out the banana’s tangy attributes, balancing out the peppy-yet-creamy accompanying scoop of cinnamon gelato.
Black Pepper Pho does a credible job of freshening up the divey pho joint. A clean, contemporary ambiance enhances the dining experience, and for the most part, flavors are clean and fresh. While the broth could use some tweaking, the experience here still ably filled my prescription for soup-based therapy.
Black Pepper Pho is located at 2770 Pearl St. in Boulder. Call 303-440-1948 or click here.