Winning Pho-mula

Công L´y Sixth Street

215 E. Sixth, 236-8878
Sun-Wed, 11am-9pm: Thu-Sat, 11am-2am

photograph by John Anderson

It all began in 1983, with a hefty pot of beef shin bones boiling away in a San Jose, California, kitchen. Within hours, the bones yielded a deep amber broth that was layered with fresh rice noodles and selected cuts of beef, then garnished with cilantro, rounds of bright green scallion, and shaved red onion. Served alongside a mountain of bean sprouts, basil leaves, and jalapeño slices, the creation constituted the ultimate in Vietnamese comfort food -- a bowl of Pho -- and it exited the tiny restaurant kitchen destined mostly for the enjoyment of a native Vietnamese clientele. Today, the folks behind this steaming bowl of soup have begun doing for Pho what McDonald's has done for the humble hamburger -- increased its popularity and universal accessibility.

Known as the Aureflam Corporation, the company is the largest noodle shop chain in North America, boasting nine locations in Texas alone, the newest of which sits in the heart of Austin's business and entertainment district on East Sixth Street. Aureflam's franchises operate under the names Pho Công L´y and Pho Hoa, and the company counts nearly 50 locations worldwide, including storefronts in Canada, Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Not unlike the hamburger, which was purportedly invented at a county fair in Wisconsin, Pho is modest "street food," the specialty of Vietnam's outdoor vendors who cater to the hungry at all hours of the day and night. Unlike the simple burger, however, authentic Pho possesses a complex flavor, the result of at least eight hours of gentle simmering. A well-balanced dose of some seven traditional spices -- the most discernible among them heady star anise -- further refines the soup. As aficionados know, what distinguishes one bowl of Pho from another is the meat that goes into it, from the rather tame brisket to the "wilder" gelatinous tendon or tripe. As the Aureflam Corporation explains on its Web site (, a good bowl of Pho should seduce the diner with its tantalizing aroma of fresh herbs and dried spices, tempt the palate with its rich ("fatty, not greasy") broth, and woo with its elaborate "do-it-yourself" presentation.

Like all Aureflam's franchisees, the new Công L´y (Austin's first Công L´y is located in a strip mall on Highway 183 and is run, incidentally, by a cousin of the Sixth Street location's owners) follows a formula that aims to make Vietnamese noodles accessible to even the most doubting of diners. A chatty menu introduces Pho as a nutritious meal-in-a-bowl and feeds the sensibilities of Nineties Americans by deeming Vietnam's signature soup a "health-conscious choice." Pho offerings ($3.95 for a "small" bowl; $4.65 for a large -- I'd call it gigantic -- bowl) fall into four general categories: "For Beginners," "Just the Regular," "The Adventurer's Choice," and "The Fortifying Combos," each with its own introductory paragraph.

Novices and the gastronomically timid are encouraged to start out slowly, discovering Pho with lean cuts of meat like eye of the round and brisket. Those with a little bit of courage are coaxed into selecting from the "Just the Regular" list, which includes the delicious Pho Tai, Nam, Gau, a version with rare eye round steak, well-done flank steak, and marble brisket, the last described appetizingly as having "thin layer of fat like bacon." "The Adventurer's Choice" category, with its soft tendon and "book" tripe entries, presents Phos that are no doubt favored by Vietnamese customers. They are characterized in the menu as the soups preferred by "choosy" diners. I went out on a limb on my most recent visit to the restaurant, daring to try the Pho Tai, Gan, Sach, a creation afloat with soft tendon and book tripe. Like the Pho Tai, Nam, Gau I'd enjoyed previously, the broth was hearty and restoring, laced delicately with the spice blend that franchise owners are required to purchase from the company's central manufacturing facility in order to ensure quality consistency. Now, I have to admit, I'm a convert when it comes to soft tendon. As dubious as it sounds and looks, once you get past the odd texture, you can expect an explosion of flavor. As for the "book" tripe, well, it's a little too chewy to earn my affection, but now that I've dared to do so once, I'll order from the "Adventurers" category again next time. Finally, the six "Fortifying Combos" cater to big appetites and generally include at least one type of meat from every category.

The remainder of Công L´y's menu includes several "lighter" soups made with chicken stock and loaded with tofu, vegetables, chicken, or shrimp. One such soup, the Pho Ga, which contains a surprisingly generous portion of thinly sliced light- and dark-meat chicken, proved excellent, although the broth lacked the substance of the more traditional, beefstock-based Phos. There are also a handful of rice dishes and several egg noodle platter options in addition to nearly a dozen vermicelli bowls.

Even though it ain't Pho, I'm a sucker for the Vietnamese vermicelli bowl, so I ordered the Bun Tom Thit Nuong ($4.85) during a recent visit to Công L´y, and was impressed not only by the size of the bowl but by the obvious freshness of the ingredients. The tangled nest of tender, warm vermicelli came topped with grilled shrimp and pork in addition to the requisite sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, and peanuts. The pork in particular was notable for its enticing grilled flavor. Crisp and dark on the outside, it nonetheless retained its moisture. Another plus was that the dish's shredded iceberg lettuce crunched with every bite, even after dousing the bowl with the accompanying sauce.

On the drink front, Công L´y's menu features three exotic-sounding, fruit-based concoctions. Against the advice of my waiter who suggested that I opt for the strawberry drink, I tried the Sinh To Sau Rieng ($2.25), a beverage featuring Southeast Asia's native durian fruit. A cross between a smoothie and a milkshake in texture, the beverage turned out to be bland, with a flavor I can best compare to snow ice cream. Although not wholly unenjoyable, I much prefer to sip the ebony Vietnamese iced coffee ($1.95) swirled with thick, decadently sweet condensed milk.

According to Aureflam's corporate statistics, Asian diners accounted for nearly 90% of Pho Hoa's and Pho Công L´y's clientele until about five years ago. Surveys that the company has taken at franchises opened in the past three years reveal a changing trend, however, with approximately 50% of the restaurants' lunch customers identifying themselves as non-Asian. Vietnam's answer to fast food, they say, is making inroads into the mainstream American diet. With its newest Austin venture, the Aureflam folks out in California should expect further triumph. Công L´y Sixth Street fulfills the company's goal of providing customers with tasty, inexpensive fare -- some of the best Pho I've tasted in Austin. Furthermore, like the original street vendors of Vietnam who can satisfy the craving for a bowl of Pho at nearly any hour, the new Công L´y stays open until 2am Thursday through Saturday, promising to familiarize downtown merrymakers with at least one Vietnamese specialty: restoration in a bowl.

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Pho Cong Ly, Cong Ly Sixth Street, Vietnamese Food, Vietnamese Soup, Asian Food, Aureflam Corporation, Rebecca Chatenet De Gery

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