March 18, 2013

Nam Phuong

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit I have a hard time stepping outside my comfort zone. While I love eating food of all cultures, it's intimidating to go to a place where you're completely lost in terms of language and ingredients.  Thus, I often rely on friends of different ethnicities to help me through my first time at a new restaurant- once I go, I feel confident enough to return on my own.  However, I sadly don't have any Vietnamese foodie friends in the city, and so have avoided most of the many Vietnamese offerings here.  However, it's hard to ignore the huge signs and interesting aromas surrounding 11th and Washington.  A tip from our realtor (yep, our place is for sale if anyone is interested in a 2/2.5 in Rittenhouse...) had me putting out some feelers on Twitter-- many helpful friends agreed Nam Phuong was worth the trip.
The space is enormous and great for groups, but has a bit of a strip mall feel on both the exterior and interior- very plain, and in need of a little updating.  However, the service is excellent and our waiter made us feel right at home.  The specials of the day may not change often, but they add a number of dishes to an already extensive menu- kind of like a Vietnamese diner menu. Thankfully everything is translated into English, and although the descriptions are minimal, it's easy enough to navigate your way through the menu.

I'll cut to the chase and say there are two great things about Nam Phuong: it is ridiculously delicious food, and it is insanely cheap.  I have no idea where else you can get a two course meal for $10, but it's hard to spend MORE than that here.  I started my meal with an order of the summer rolls, stuffed with shrimp, shaved pork, vermicelli noodles, lettuce and fresh herbs ($3).  

The stretchy rice paper wrapped rolls are always my favorite- even in the dead of winter.  While the ingredients were fresh, the peanut dipping sauce added some much needed flavor.

We also had an order of a similar roll, the grilled pork rolls- or Thit Nuong Cuon ($3.25).  Oddly, these had a completely different flavor profile with just a single different ingredient.  

The grilled pork was way meatier than the shaved pork in the regular summer roll, and was well worth the extra quarter.

Since each menu item is described simply, with just the basic ingredients and maybe a note on cooking style, a request to the waiter for "the spiciest dish on the menu" gave an instant reply of "#273."  Yep, the menu is numbered for everyone's convenience.  #273: Chicken sauteed with lemongrass, curry, and coconut sauce- definitely wouldn't peg this for a mouth burner.  Unfortunately, it actually wasn't- the curry had great flavor but only mild heat.  It was still a winner though, since it was an enormous pile of chicken, as well as plenty of broccoli for some greens and a bowl of steamed white rice on the side... for only $8.50.

Another great thing about Nam Phuong's menu is that it literally has something for everyone.  While you can definitely get adventurous here, my husband stuck with something familiar, the Chicken Fried Rice ($6.95).  Served on a dinner platter rather than a regular plate, the plate had all the necessities of the classic Chinese comfort food- shredded chicken, scrambled egg, the requisite peas and carrots, and plenty of sesame oil to add crispness and flavor.

I was more interested in the strictly Vietnamese offerings, which of course include noodle soups.  Pho takes up an entire section of the menu, with different variations on meat choices.  J took the aforementioned adventurous route and ordered a bowl with eye-round steak and beef tripe.  It's hard to accurately describe how large these servings are-- I could easily face plant into my soup bowl with room to spare.  It's also really hard to describe the flavors of the soup- there are probably dozens of ingredients that went into making the broth.

Flat pieces of softened beef and strips of chewy tripe float with a few chopped onions and herbs above a huge pile of chewy noodles.  A side platter offers bean sprouts, basil and jalapenos to add as you please- the more the better, in my opinion.  A tray of condiments is also present on each table, and gives you even more flavor options for your meal- the thick chili garlic sauce and the sriracha being my personal picks.

The restaurant provides options from pretty much all the Asian cuisines, including Thailand.  One of the specials of the day was a spicy Pad Thai (~$8).  It's always interesting to see how different restaurants prepare a super classic dish.  I have to say Nam Phuong surprised me with this one- I liked that the noodles are a little thicker and chewier, and there was plenty of sauce, chicken, and shrimp to go around.  Red chili pepper, crushed peanuts, and a squeeze of lime juice built those familiar Pad Thai flavors, but with more intensity- it was spicy!

A small serving from the enormous platter
The soup I chose was definitely my favorite dish of the night- Bun Bo Hue ($5.95).  I definitely credit Yelp for my decision, since otherwise this soup doesn't stand out on the menu.  The name comes from the two basic ingredients: bun, or rice vermicelli, and bo, or beef.  In many senses, it is a similar soup to the pho, but the flavor profiles were drastically different.  Wikipedia actually describes it as having "spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavors" which is pretty accurate- it's pretty much everything you would want, wrapped up in a single bowl.  The noodle to meat ratio is pretty large, but that was fine by me- plenty of noodles to take home for lunch later in the week.

I'm kind of sad it took me so long to venture over here- although it was a no-frills experience, the kitchen knows what they're doing and prepares a huge variety of authentic Asian staples- including tons of dishes I've never tried.  I also love that the size of the restaurant allows you to wander in on your own schedule without reservations- chance is they'll have a table for you.  If not, the food is served incredibly fast, so table turnover is high and you'll be seated shortly.  Now that I'm addicted to Bun Bo Hue, I definitely see lots of future trips for some great cheap soup!

Nam Phuong
1100 Washington Avenue (entrance on 11th Street)


  1. Nice. Every time I wander past here I think - "this place looks boring enough from the outside that it's probably really good on the inside." I should know to trust my instincts on these things by now!

    One of these weekends I'll need to make my way down there (I live in Kensington) for a meal, and be sure to bring some cash to splurge in that strip-mall-ish market (Viet Tofu, or something like that?) right behind it afterwards...

  2. This place is a gem known by most phoodies in Philly and especially those who love a great bowl of Pho.You picked what most consider to be the best :)