Just Pho has set up a nice monopoly in Athens as the only place in town serving Vietnam's famous noodle soup. Aromatic, soothing and warm, pho is a great bowl of comfort any day of the year but especially during these cool fall nights. The last time I visited place was when they first opened and a return visit was long overdue.
Just Pho isn't your usual BuHi (Buford Highway) location - it's very clean, homey (there's a piano inside), decorated with paintings by locals and rather quiet. The old Asian man running this place is extremely friendly, reminding me of my own very own grandfather but rest assured, his
Engrish English is good. As for the menu, it has your usual Vietnamese fare: bahn mi, rice noodle dishes, pho and the ever popular bubble tea/smoothies. Unfortunately for offal enthusiasts like me, no tripe is offered in any of the pho dishes on the menu. Predictable, as tripe (or offal in general) is probably not that popular in a town populated by college students more interested in Kraft blue box, bad ramen and $1 fast foods. Prices are very reasonable although they're slightly more expensive than the BuHi locations.
3 of my dinner companions ordered the fried egg rolls and spring rolls. The fried egg rolls were prepared fresh and it was still hot when it came out. No reheated, soggy, over-greasy mess here my friends. Just crispy, delicious egg rolls. The spring rolls are generally filled with shrimp, beef and veggies and accompanied by peanut sauce. Like all pho places, the condiments arrive before the soup. At Just Pho, your vegetable accompaniments consist of bean sprouts, lime wedges, Thai basil, cilantro and a jalapeno slice per order. I was hoping for some mint also but to be honest, I was expecting less in this college town.
I ordered the medium beef pho with the rare steak and brisket. Before I even started to eat, I could tell that it wasn't going to be as good as the places on BuHi. That strong, addictive and luring steam of spices and savory beef that permeates your nostrils just wasn't there. As I suspected, the soup was indeed of lesser quality than the ones I had been used to. It lacked the savory flavor, warmth from the cinnamon and the omnipresent backnote of star anise. Our entire party (although J's bowl was an exception) noticed that they were pretty conservative on the meat portions also. A bummer but overlooked by all of us. As a size comparison, a medium (~$6) here is a small at BuHi, large a medium and so on.
Perhaps the most interesting item in Just Pho is their durian smoothie. What? You don't know what durian is? It is single handedly the most atrocious smelling fruit. Imagine the smell of rotting onions, a moldy gym sock and petroleum gas all combined as one and you get the scent of durian. However, it's freaking delicious. Absolutely amazing. Its taste can only be described as durian. There really is no great comparison for its tasty flavor. Naturally, I ordered the smoothie as soon as I saw it on the menu. The rotten stench of durian doesn't permeate the room and it's confined within the proximity of the cool drink. It had a good durian flavor and I really enjoyed it. Just make sure you're not on a date when you drink this because the fruit definitely leaves its trademark stinky breath after you drink it.
While Just Pho doesn't offer the best pho in Georgia, what other choice does Athens have? This is the only place in Athens where you can find a restaurant with this dish. That being said, Just Pho is a great restaurant offering the pho newbies of Athens a taste of Vietnam's famous soup. The owner is nice, food is decent and it's affordable even for the college crowd. I'll be coming back to this place whenever I miss that savory and warm broth because after your first slurp of this delicious dish, you're hooked for life.
- 3 sizes of pho: small, medium and large
- Bahn Mi are about $5 and come in 4 different varieties
- They offer a limited selection of dessert from a French bakery located in Marietta, GA
- Beer and wine available
- Special smoothies like the durian flavor are seasonal