5024 Blanding Blvd Jacksonville, Fl 32210

Restaurant Review: This Pho’s A Westside Winner

Henry Pham knows his way around Asian kitchens, having championed eateries over the past decade in Annapolis, Md. and the Virgin Islands. Now he’s cooking up a new venture on the Westside, taking over in April as owner and head chef at Pho 99 Vietnamese Grill.

Pham bills his newest project, in a relatively nondescript strip mall on Blanding Boulevard just north of 103rd Street in Cedar Hills, as an outlet for authentic Vietnamese fare. That includes his restaurant’s namesake beef broth and noodle soup (pronounced “fuh”) in nearly a dozen variations along with Thai delicacies, bubble teas and other sweetened refreshments.

It’s worth noting that it is hard to miss this restaurant, especially after dark, on account of a very hard-working neon sign in the window, reminding you it’s open. Once inside, décor is more utilitarian than elegant, with orange walls, light tile floors and a drop ceiling enveloping a dining room bisected by a half wall and tufts of greenery.

I’ve had pho on numerous occasions, mostly at places on the Southside, and was eager to test-drive Pho 99’s sizable menu of broths, noodle and rice dishes, meat-and-veggie entrees and hot pot offerings. My friend and I stopped in to check things out on a recent Wednesday night.

We began with the House Special Combination ($10.99), an appetizer sampler platter starring a fresh summer roll, spring roll, chicken satay and lemongrass beef, with a colorful array of veggies in the middle with a tangy Thai dressing. The finger foods were fresh and flavorful, especially the crunchy spring roll filled with shrimp and the sweet and tender beef strips on skewers, dressed with sesame seeds. The plate came with tasty dippers of fish, peanut and a spicy house special sauce. Even if you’re not into Asian food, you’ll likely find something to enjoy on this plate.

I couldn’t justify a visit to a pho place without trying out its signature entrée, the Pho 99 Special Beef Soup (mine was a small, for $6.50). This simmering beef broth was chock-full of pork and beef chunks, tangles of rice noodles and lots of optional garnishes on the side, including sliced jalapenos and fresh basil. This pho was an aromatic, fresh treat.

My friend opted for seafood, in this case the Jumbo Shrimp with Broccoli ($12.99). This tasteful, colorful arrangement of de-tailed prawns, broccoli, carrots and peppers in a brown sauce was a tasty one at that, too.

I opted for a traditional Thai plate, the Pad Thai with Tofu ($9.99). The voluminous spread of glassy, broad noodles, egg, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and very lightly fried tofu cubes was plenty for two meals, but the noticeably mild flavor fell too flat for my liking. Interestingly, I was never asked for my spice preference, as I’ve found most Thai-only eateries won’t prepare this dish without it.

Pho 99 offers three desserts on its menu: a crème caramel flan, some exoticly flavored ice creams — avocado is one of your options — and a three-flavored bean dish, or Chè Ba Màu ($3.99). I opted for the daring choice — avocado ice cream is for next time — and went with the latter, a blend of three different layers of beans in coconut milk, topped with shaved ice and peanuts. Perhaps my palate is too Westernized, but excavating a sundae dish for black beans isn’t my idea of a sweet treat. In fact, I didn’t pick up on anything sweet about this dish.

Beer is your sole adult beverage of choice at Pho 99. Bottled options range from domestic mass brews to pan-Asian favorites, including Saigon, Singha, Kirin Ichiban, Tiger and Tsingtao. Get them two for one during happy hour, daily from 5 to 7 p.m.

Service was beyond friendly in every regard and relatively speedy, even as the dining room began to fill up later on during our stay. Our servers were genuinely curious to know what we thought of our food.

In terms of entertainment, if you’ve never met a mic you didn’t like, Pho 99 brings in karaoke Friday and Saturday nights at 10 p.m.

With only a couple of hiccups to note, I found Pho 99 to offer fresh, flavorful pho and other fare at very reasonable prices. For Westsiders and beyond, it’s a worthy dine.

For more of Jay’s dining experiences, visit his blog at www.jaymagee.com.

5024 Blanding Blvd., Westside/Cedar Hills
(904) 361-3930
Type of cuisine: Vietnamese
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards: All major accepted
Bar service: Beer
Children’s menu: No
Reservations accepted: Yes
Catering: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $3.50-$10.99; salads, $7.99-$9.99; noodle soups/pho, $4.50-$10.99; protein entrees, $8.50-$12.99; noodles, fried rice and vegetarian dishes, $9.99-$14.99; chef’s entrées, $12.99-$18.99.