Yes, You Can Have A Burger With Your Pho

In the grand tradition of Prairie diners, Pho King doesn’t make you decide between eggs and Asian

You could say Edmonton has a long Pho King tradition when it comes to tidy, efficient, family-run prairie diners that split their menu between farm-style lunch-counter staples and Asian dishes — the archetype for me is Friends and Neighbours on Whyte (albeit a few ownership changes ago), which made great greasy breakfast and one of the best stirfries I’ve ever had in a restaurant. And they always kept the coffee coming.

So what’s the Pho King difference? Clean, efficient, affordable — check! — but the kitchen doesn’t just do Chinese food off the side of the grill as they whip up omelets and burgers. The emphasis is definitely on the Vietnamese soups, noodles and rice dishes, plus there’s a list of teriyaki stirfries, and appetizers include yam tempura right alongside the salad rolls. Or maybe you’d prefer to gird yourself with two eggs, bacon and cheese sandwiched between two syrup-drizzled pancakes? It’s your Pho King choice, friend.

Another Pho King difference is that, unlike many restaurants in its near vicinity, Pho King keeps such hours as actually make it accessible to the general public. They’re open at 11 on Sunday morning, for instance, and not just sometimes. My first visit there a few weeks ago coincided with a blizzard, which was all the excuse I needed to try out the Pho King pho ($7.45/large). My co-diner waffled, expressing interest in the Pho King vermicelli bowls, but reversed herself last minute and ordered the Pho King pho too.  As these things tend to go, we also ordered some spring rolls ($2.95).

Neither of us go in for the fancy pho — no beef balls or tripe or anything that’s primarily gristle and fat and requires physical handling during the eating process, just thin slices of steak, dropped raw into the hot soup to cook. (I will confess I once ate pho with ostrich in it, but that was not a Pho King option.) Fortunately, we picked the right Pho King number from the menu.

The soup easily met the minimum requirements — complex, aromatic house-made beef broth, chewy rice noodles, lots of lean beef slices, ample sides of fresh basil, sprouts, bird’s eye chilies and lime — and proceeded deliciously into satisfying our pho cravings. The spring rolls were likewise unfussily perfect in their way. There would be no Pho King disappointment today.

A few weeks lapsed before our next visit, during which we resolved to test out the Pho King breakfast, which covers the usual combinations of eggs, pig meat, your choice of pancakes or toast, and homefries and won’t run you much over $6. Could it be as Pho King good as the soup? Capricious creatures that we are, we never actually found out. Remember that perverse urge to eat a cheeseburger ($6.95) for breakfast I was telling you about? It’s the bacon that makes it breakfasty! Also, who doesn’t love onion rings? My backsliding co-diner didn’t slide as far back as ordering soup, but couldn’t resist the House Special vermicelli ($8.95) with grilled pork, pork patty and shrimp. To wash it all down, we’d need intensely sweet, dark-roasted Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk over ice ($2.95 each).

As previously, the service was fast, polite and accurate, with everything we needed seemingly arriving at the table at once. My burger would have been the pride of any small-town hockey rink concession stand, a very flat patty of ground beef lavished with an iridescent processed cheese slice and two crisp staves of bacon, garnished with iceberg lettuce, tomato and onion slices and a couple of pickle discs, ketchup and mustard on the side. The lightly toasted white bun was an appropriate size and density relative to the patty. Delightfully, some of the cheese slice had assumed liquid form and slouched onto the grill, forming a rind of brown cheese that still clung to one side of the patty. Life is made of such small pleasures. The generous side of onion rings gave me a hint of what their tempura might be like — the batter was puffy rather than particulate, well-drained and crispy. A worthy Pho King take on the prairie diner burger.

Co-diner was lukewarm on her bowl of vermicelli, but it looked and tasted multifarious to me, which is what I like in vermicelli — the noodles well-tossed with carrots, bean sprouts, lettuce, herbs, green onions; multiple succulent meats imbued with lemongrass and garlic. Chunks of spring roll and fish sauce to dip them in were also provided. It was all there. She dug the grill-charred shrimp, but found the pork too fatty and the pork patty unappetizing. That said, she put a good dent in it.

The tab came to just over $22 when we got to the till. Was this some kind of Pho King joke? Or maybe a big Pho King mistake? No, it turns out, that’s good Pho King value!

Seriously though, if you love retro diner eats or cleanly executed Asian staples, put your money where your mouth is. You won’t be sorry. Just writing this review made it worthwhile for me.

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