10 Pho-tastic places for pho
Places serve up both simple and traditional bowls
For a city its size, Madison has an impressive diversity of ethnic restaurants. No matter your craving, there’s always a slew of great restaurants to choose from for an authentic bowl of pho (pronounced fuh), the fragrant Vietnamese noodle soup. Here in Madison, you can find several restaurants serving up simple and traditional bowls. More adventuresome diners can try less customary bowls, like those made with spicy pork broth or featuring house-made pastrami. Here’s your guide to finding pho in the city.
Dragon I was originally opened by Ray Sze, the University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who owned and operated Nam’s Noodle for nearly two decades, so it makes sense that Dragon I would have a similar vibe. Dragon I (pronounced “Dragon eye”) is Asian fusion meets private karaoke club, just like Nam’s Noodle, but this time on State Street with a stunningly beautiful and sunny space. The exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, open kitchen and huge windows create an inviting atmosphere to hang out for a while. The menu at Dragon I is expansive, with a collection of Southeast Asian dishes, including a whole section of the menu dedicated to pho. Pho dishes are mainly focused on beef but also include chicken and vegetarian options. 422 State St., 287-1551 $
Ha Long Bay
This quaint Willy Street space is always bustling. With a bright interior, cozy atmosphere and 10-page menu, there is nothing quite like Ha Long Bay. Guests are able to explore the cuisines of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos all from one restaurant, with dozens of options for curries, soups and noodle dishes. Pho claims an entire section of the menu and goes well beyond traditional beef flavors. The roast duck pho is an offbeat favorite, but shrimp, chicken and tofu are also great options. Come here with a good friend when you want to linger over a soothing bowl of noodles. 1353 Williamson St., 255-2868 $ BOM
Pho can be found on the lunch menu at Lao Laan-Xang from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. The lunch special comes with an egg roll or cucumber salad for less than $10, so it’s a pho worth checking out for price alone. Diners can choose from beef, chicken, mock duck, shrimp, fish, squid, mussel or tofu, as well as specify desired level of heat. The pho broth here is not traditional (which makes sense considering it’s not a staple of the regular menu), but rather dark, salty and spicy, making for a lovely contrast from the norm. There are no table seasonings, but customers can request sriracha, chili paste, Thai pepper blend, hoisin or fish sauce. 2098 Atwood Ave., 819-0140; 1146 Williamson St., 280-0104 $ BOM
Mom’s Deli (Viet Hoa Market)
The newest spot bringing pho to Madison is tucked in the back of the Viet Hoa Market in Monona. Opened in January 2017 by the Lor family (who formerly offered a similar menu at the now-closed Madison Oriental Market on Fish Hatchery Road), this space has the feel of a neighborhood dive bar. The menu is small, simple and offers only eight items on weekdays, but the generous, friendly service keeps you coming back. The single pho on the menu has a dark, rich broth served with a generous portion of meat. For only about $7, two people can easily share one bowl. Plus, you can shop for all your favorite Southeast Asian ingredients while you wait for your meal. 4602 Monona Drive, 421-4789 $
Nam’s Noodle & Karaoke Bar
Opened as a noodle house in 2000, this compact bar and restaurant on Regent Street added private karaoke rooms to the space a few short years later, making it easily one of the most entertaining places to grab a bowl of pho in Madison. The menu here is broad, offering not only Vietnamese fare but also Chinese and Southeast Asian dishes. The nine pho options on the menu all boast different combinations of beef. From simple sliced beef to brisket, meatball, tripe or tendon, the choices are many. Combine that with a glass of mango milk bubble tea and you’ve got a fun meal that’s going to set you back only about $12. 1336 Regent St., 287-0475 $
Pho Nam Noodle House
Pho is definitely the focal point of this Vietnamese restaurant on the far west side of Madison. Diners here will find a guide to pho on each table explaining how the soup will be served and how to customize an individual bowl. Pho is all about the eater, after all. Here, diners can add sliced jalapeños, bean sprouts, Thai basil or lime (all served on the side), as well as hoisin, sriracha, soy sauce or garlic chile oil (all out on the table) to one of the seven choices of pho on the menu. Each bowl is served with a generous amount of raw white onion, scallion and cilantro on top. The broth is subtle and close to clear, which signifies a more delicate flavor and superior technique. 610 Junction Road, Suite 109, 836-7040 $
Saigon Noodles was one of the first shops to bring traditional Vietnamese noodle soup to the city. Ann Tran and brother Henry opened Saigon Noodles in 2004 with a determination to bring their favorite Vietnamese dishes to their new home in America. Here you can find nine variations on beef pho on the menu, all with a house-made broth inspired by their mother’s recipe. The beef broth, an essential part of a good bowl of pho, takes about 10 hours to make. There’s also a chicken pho (Pho Ga) and an array of Vietnamese noodle salads (bun) on the menu. 6754 Odana Road, 827-9120 $
Sujeo transforms traditional Asian dishes into something extraordinary with outside-the-box ingredients. Top chef Tory Miller’s sleek pan-Asian restaurant has a take on pho that’s no exception. There’s only one pho on the menu here, but it’s well worth the visit. The broth is traditional: ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, coriander and cardamom join beef bones and beef shanks simmered for 10-12 hours. What makes this pho different is the addition of house-made pastrami brined for two to three days before getting coated in spices and smoked for hours. The pastrami, cooked with black pepper and coriander, adds a briny flavor and kick of spice to the otherwise aromatic dish. 10 N. Livingston St., 630-9400 $$ BOM
Thai Noodles sits in a sun-filled shop on McKee Road, where you can get the Thai version of pho known as khewtiew. There are three versions of khewtiew on the menu: beef, pork and seafood. The khewtiew beef is similar to a traditional pho, with beef tenderloin, beef meatball and beef round in a savory broth alongside a pile of rice stick noodles. Cilantro, scallion and ground peanuts are sprinkled on top, reminding you that this is a Thai dish you’re eating. The khewtiew seafood is packed with calamari, shrimp, scallops, mussels and crab, but the khewtiew pork offers the most unique take on the typically Vietnamese dish. The broth, though not especially complex, is delicious and spicy. It’s the same broth used for the khao tom soup. All khewtiew are served with the traditional pho plate of herbs, raw onion, sprouts and chile on the side as well as a carousel of sauces and seasonings to adjust flavors to your preference. 5957 McKee Road, 270-9527 $
Wah Kee Wonton Noodle
Though Wah Kee Wonton Noodle bills itself as a Chinese noodle restaurant, diners can find an array of Asian dishes on the menu. This downtown institution has been around for 33 years, specializing in egg and rice noodles. Here you will find two phos (chicken or beef), both served with a plate of all the customary side ingredients. Hot chili oil is also available upon request and adds a lot to either bowl of pho offered here. 600 Williamson St., 255-5580 $
Lauren Rudersdorf is co-owner of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm, a freelance writer and food blogger at The Leek and The Carrot.
COPYRIGHT 2021 BY MADISON MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED.