At some point over the past few weeks, I'd venture to say, we officially transitioned into soup weather. With gray skies and chilly winds blowing, there are few things as satisfying as getting out of the cold for a bowl of soup. For me, a large, steaming bowl of pho is the most satisfying soup in these conditions.
This traditional Vietnamese noodle soup can be found in a number of area restaurants, but in my opinion Kim's Restaurant in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany is making the best pho in the area.
For the uninitiated, pho -- pronounced "fuh" -- features a bowl of broth flavored by simmering beef parts (traditionally leg bones, oxtail, maybe flank or brisket) along with onions, ginger, and spices. Served with that broth are rice noodles, scallions, cilantro, and a protein -- Kim's offers thin slices of beef eye round and brisket, along with small beef meatballs. On a plate beside the soup you receive bean sprouts, large Thai basil leaves on the stem, jalapeno slices, and quarters of lime. And in a small bowl, Kim's provides both hoisin and chili sauces.
Ever since I had my first truly great bowl of pho, about a decade ago in a steamy hole in the wall in Boston, I've learned that there are distinct differences between good pho and average pho. That difference inevitably lies in the broth. There are some restaurants where the broth will simply not be cooked with -- or not long enough with -- the aforementioned beef parts (they opt for using bouillon instead). Recipes for making pho specify about six hours of cooking time for that broth, enough time for the fat and proteins to break down and infuse the broth with depth of flavor and a rich mouthfeel. Also present in a good broth are the traditional pho spices, the most prominent of which are clove, cinnamon, and star anise, the latter of which infuses the broth with a black licorice-like taste; the spices work in harmony with the deep beef flavor.
Kim's broth is a standout -- rich, full of layers of flavor, and likely to leave you slurping until you've finished the final spoonful.
The rice noodles are the ideal complement for this broth because of their mild taste and ability to absorb the broth's flavor. While I always enjoy putting some of the chili sauce (it tastes like Sriracha) on my noodles, the rice noodles alone, after soaking in that broth, provide plenty of flavor.
I've had all three of the beef options with the pho at Kim's. The first time I ordered it with the thin slices of beef round and well-done brisket, the second time I added meatballs to the mix. On my initial visit I found the beef round cooked just a bit long, but the second time it retained a pinkness that gradually dissipated as it lingered in the hot broth. The round is a lean cut, while the brisket is fatty, and I find it enjoyable to sample both within the same bowl. Meanwhile, the meatballs are small, cut in half, and, as is typical of Vietnamese meatballs, somewhat rubbery.
The garnishes served by Kim's are useful additions both in terms of texture and taste. The bean sprouts have a nice crunch, a good contrast to all of the softer elements in the soup, while the Thai basil leaves provide a combination of sweetness and bright, anise-like flavor. The lime pieces can be squeezed to add some tartness to the broth or noodles, and the jalapeno slices are useful if you're looking for heat.
Kim's is a modest restaurant featuring a fairly nondescript storefront. The service is friendly and fast, and options abound beyond the pho, from a delicious appetizer of crispy fried pork and shrimp spring rolls, to a fresh and bright papaya and shrimp salad, to a number of classic Vietnamese noodle and rice dishes.
The restaurant opened earlier this year to little fanfare and has been quiet on my visits. This is a shame, because Kim's is putting a lot of time and love into their signature dish, their pho. With the temperatures outside falling, Kim's should make for an ideal place to stop for a flavorful way to warm up.
Jeff Janssens writes about food and beer at The Masticating Monkey.
791 Madison Ave
Albany, NY 12208
Note: Kim's is closed on Tuesday.
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