Smile Politely

All Thaied Up: Campustown’s Pho Cafe

A chilly and rainy fall day seemed like the perfect day to grab some warm, rich pho for lunch. Since we were both on campus at the same time and amazingly, we were both free for lunch, I met my husband at Pho Café and Thai Kitchen. After a drizzly and windy walk, I was really looking forward to warming up with some warm soup and some spicy Thai goodness.

Pho Café is a quick-serve pho and Thai in the Campustown area. There isn’t much ambiance. You order at the counter and they hand you a number, which they will call out for you to come pick up your tray of food when it’s ready. There are a handful of tables for four along one wall of the restaurant and several tables which seat eight. When it’s busy, you wind up sharing tables with other groups unless you take the food to-go.

I was feeling indecisive, so we spent some time examining the menu before we ordered. The menu is basic but offers a full range of Thai classics — noodles, rice dishes, soups and curries — along with beef, chicken and shrimp pho. Because it was chilly and raining, I was torn between getting soup and getting some spicy curry. We settled on splitting a bowl of shrimp pho ($9.99), an order of shrimp pad Thai ($8.95), and a shrimp green curry ($8.25). For the Thai dishes, the shrimp was a $1.95 upcharge. I was also surprised that they didn’t seem to have any hot tea at all and that the Thai iced tea was canned. The only other drink options were cans of soda. There are no appetizers on the menu, which was surprising at this kind of restaurant. A Thai menu without crab Rangoon, fish cakes, or beef satay seems wrong somehow.

We grabbed our beverages and our order number and sat down at one of the long tables. We had the whole table because the restaurant wasn’t particularly full for lunch, even though it was the kind of day that calls for pho. While we were waiting for our food, I grabbed a bottle of Siracha and a plastic cup of hoisin sauce along with some chopsticks and napkins from the condiment setup near the cash register.
After a reasonable wait, our order was ready, and I went up to grab our trays. The pho was served in a large bowl with a side dish with a lime and raw bean sprouts. Wait — no basil or cilantro? Seriously? Pho is supposed to be served with fresh herbs along with the lime and sprouts. The fresh herbs and bright citrus acid from the lime help to lighten what is normally a heavy broth, and the sprouts add some texture to round out the softness of the noodles and boiled meat. The lime and sprouts were fine, but the missing herbs was disappointing.

The pho itself was tasty. The broth was a little thinner than it should have been, but had some good seafood flavor. The shrimp were well cooked, and the portion was fair. What made this bowl of pho work, though, were the noodles. The noodles were outstanding. One of the downsides of pho or ramen at a quick-serve place is that the noodles are batch-cooked and then held in water before being dunked in your broth when you order (or worse, just hanging out in a batch of broth like sad canned noodle soup). These noodles did not have that texture at all. They were firm, starchy and seemed very fresh.

The fact that the noodles were so good in the pho made the pad Thai seem more disappointing. The noodles in this dish were gluey and overly sweet. There were too many peanuts and they seemed a little on the burned side. The scallions were fresh and nicely charred, which gave the dish some smoky flavor which was nice. The shrimp were plump and cooked perfectly. But there were still some elements missing. What makes Thai food work so well is the perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy, tangy, and umami. This version had too much sweetness and very little of any other flavors to balance it out. Even generously squeezing lime over it didn’t help balance the dish. It was missing the fish sauce which would give it salty/umami zing that makes pad Thai work so well as a dish.

The green curry suffered from similar issues. The curry sauce was extremely thin and milky. Even though both dishes were ordered at spice level 3, there wasn’t a consistent amount of either flavor or heat throughout the dish. The Thai dishes make it obvious that this is a quick-service place and the preparation method is more assemble-to-order than cook-to-order. It seemed like they just added some chili powder to a basic curry, so the spice flavor doesn’t really amalgamate into the dish. The shrimp were cooked very well, and the vegetables seemed fresh, although in a few cases slightly undercooked. The rice served on the side was almost inedible because it was so dry. The thin curry didn’t help the texture at all. We wound up mostly picking the shrimp and vegetables out of the curry sauce and ignoring the rice altogether.

When we ordered both Thai dishes, they asked us how spicy we wanted them when we ordered. I thought that was a little strange, since pad Thai is not normally a spicy dish. We settled on level three for both dishes since we were sharing, and my husband doesn’t usually prefer things as hot as I do. We should have gone spicier since the heat at level three was minimal. My husband remarked that he wasn’t sure what a level one would be like, since he didn’t taste much spice in the curry. I’m glad I grabbed that bottle of Siracha.

Would I go back? Perhaps, but I’d skip the Thai entrees altogether and just stick to the pho. It is a good place for a quick, inexpensive meal around campus. We ordered much more food than a typical quick lunch for two people and the bill was only $35.66. This is the type of place you go when you’re not looking to really linger over a meal or focus much on the food. For a cold fall day when you just want a quick bowl of warm soup and comforting noodles and you don’t want to spend a lot of money, Pho Café could be just what you’re looking for.

Pho Café and Thai Kitchen is located at 611 East Green Street, Champaign, and open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 

All photos by Kat Wisnosky. 

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