A soft glow from the giant skylight fills the room and hovers above the tables at Pho Phú Quoc, where the dining area is loud and sunny, smelling of fresh basil and broth. It feels different from most of the seedy soup-houses I adore most. This place has a vibe that reminds me of going to brunch with my family after church as a kid. Everyone seems to have just come from something they didn’t really want to do, but that’s over now and they’re happy to be here. Best of all, it’s time to eat.
Pho Phú Quoc — also known as PPQ Beef Noodle House — on the corner of 19th Avenue and Irving Street is well known for its heaping bowls of delicious soup. It’s a small, family-run shop on a nice little strip with some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city. At first glance, the menu is straightforward and lists the usual suspects from pho bò (beef) and pho gà (chicken) to bún bò huo (spicy beef) and bún riêu (a tomato-based crab soup).
But right in the middle of this overabundance of choices is the No. 8, a curry chicken noodle soup with spicy coconut milk broth. Its mystery and uniqueness is too intriguing to simply ignore. Once the steaming bowl arrives at the table, you’ll notice it looks nothing like pho. It’s fiery in color, with droplets of sinister chili oil floating hypnotically on the surface. Unlike most opaque pho broths, this one is creamy with a velvety consistency. Hints of lemon, pungent onions, sweet coconut milk, and spicy curry flavors blanket the tongue with each spoonful. Soaking up nuances of cumin, turmeric, bay leaf, and cloves, the vermicelli noodles take on a whole new role, acting as a vessel to transport the earthy flavors.
This soup has a brightness to it, a pep that comes with being savory, sweet, and spicy all at the same time. What makes it so satisfying is — even though it’s nothing like other bowls of pho — it still satiates that same craving. It warms your soul and fills your stomach in a way that other soups simply cannot.
I’m sure there are many specialties on PPQ’s menu, and I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t tried many of them. I only come here for No. 8. It’s that bastard of a dish that steals your heart on the first date and never lets you go. That dish that will forever forbid you from further menu exploration due to the fear, and ultimately the knowledge, that nothing will ever top your usual. PPQ has forever changed the way I think of pho, and it’s all because of No. 8. So when it arrives in front of you, scalding hot and bubbling in all of its glory, close your eyes and take that first sip. Do you see it? Can you feel it? That’s life, my friends. Love it. Live it. Slurp the hell out of it.
PPQ Beef Noodle House, 1816 Irving St., 415-661-8829 or ppqsf.com