Step up to the strip mall, order at the counter, and take your number to your table. Don’t be fooled by Pho 96’s inauspicious first impression. Any likeness to the legions of fast food chains that pepper the surrounding stretch of West Chester ends there. A savory-sweet tickle of star anise, fennel seed, and clove wafts through the small, colorful dining room as we step up to the counter. The meat lovers pho combines eye of round, flank, brisket, meatballs, and tendon with a surprisingly nuanced and greaseless beef broth. The my tho soup—available Friday through Sunday—simmers pork in its own silky broth with tail-on shrimp, ribbons of gently poached squid, and soft-boiled quail eggs. Both soups arrive steaming, loaded with rice noodles and garnished with bean sprouts, basil, jalapeños, and culantro (not to be confused with cilantro—this lesser-known cousin is more bitter.)
Not psyched for soup? If noodles are king here, the water fern cake is queen. The “cakes” are actually custard and filled with minced shrimp, scallions, and fried onions. Drown it in the accompanying vinegar-inflected fish sauce and tuck in with your spoon. Or choose the bun cha: julienned carrots, crushed peanuts, and tasty steamed-then-fried pork patties served with romaine lettuce leaf boats. The dish was a hit at our table. Textbook perfect banh mi sandwiches are abetted by colorful bubble teas, upping the fun factor. Ample parking and plenty of elbow room make Pho 96 an easy bet when you need a weeknight pick-me-up.