By Deborah Bostock-Kelley

Anthony Pham didn’t open his restaurant with his brother just to fill the need and provide healthy Vietnamese meals with carnivore, vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options to his Carrollwood community.  He founded Simply Pho in the shopping complex on the corner of Fletcher Avenue and North Dale Mabry Highway because he cherishes the relationships he’s built with his loyal customers since opening in 2014.

For Pham, it’s all about the people. Yes, his food tastes incredible, but it takes second place to the friendships he formed with his regulars.

Pham relates a story where a high school senior wanted to make Simply Pho the backdrop to a special Promposal. He wrote out in red peppers “Prom” on one plate and a large “?” on the other. The couple is now a weekly fixture at the restaurant for date night.

He enjoys hearing his customers’ stories and getting to introduce newbies to the wonder that is Vietnam cuisine. Vietnamese cuisine focuses on balance and harmony in the body using the rule of five: five fundamental elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet to create balance in each meal. Each item corresponds to five organs – gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, and urinary bladder.

Along with five elements, Vietnamese dishes combine five types of nutrients: powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein, and fat, typically employing five colors of white, green, yellow, red, and black.

Even the presentation follows the rule of five. Beauty for your sight, spices for taste, crispy ingredients for sound, aromatic scents for smell, and texture for touch.

“We provide comfort food, featuring five elements to balance your body,” says Pham. “Our focus is on providing healthy food to our customers.”

Pham says that Pho wasn’t entirely mainstream until Food Network started talking about it.

“It triggered people’s curiosity how that person can finish that big bowl of soup,” he explains.

Though traditionally in America, people expect soup as an appetizer before the meal, soup is a main meal in Vietnam and – a huge meal – at Simply Pho.

Pham says the best reaction he receives from customers trying Pho for the first time is the desire to have it again.

“They say, ‘I can’t believe I finished it,’” he says. “Go big or go home. Our big bowl is 70 ounces. They surprise themselves that they finish it. It’s not heavy. We simmer the broth and skim the fat out. We simmer 48 hours with many herbs like star anise, fennel, roasted ginger, and onion. Ginger helps with the digestive system.”

Pham says that a customer with cancer religiously orders the Pho soup as he lost his appetite, and it is the one item he can taste after chemotherapy.

The most popular customer options for Pho are eye-round steak and meatball pho, but his personal favorite is Pho Special featuring six hearty cuts of meat: eye-round steak, well-done flank, tripe, beef meatballs, well-done brisket, and soft tendon.

To appeal to individual dietary restrictions, Pham says nearly every menu item can be prepared vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free.

“The food is a cross between Chinese and Thai, not heavy on the sauce. We concentrate on light and healthy, using a lot of vegetables. The flavor is not overwhelming. Vietnamese cuisine is more diverse than most think.”

As retired military from both the Air Force and National Guard, Pham provides discounts to all first responders and military.

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When the pleasant staff delivers the meals piping hot to our table, the first thing I take in is food presentation is definitely crucial to Pham. It’s beautiful. My second response is to the delightful aroma wafting across the table.

The Appetizer Sampler is the perfect combination of crunch and tenderness. Two Spring Rolls, two Simply Pho Egg Rolls, two Shrimp Sausage Wrap, and four Shrimp Wrap is a delicious start to our meal.

Delivered next to the table is eight large pieces of plump Fried Tofu, complemented by Sweet and Sour Chili Sauce. Tofu has to be cooked just right to be tasty, and Simply Pho nails it. The tofu is crispy on the outside and soft and egg-like in the center.

With heaping amounts of shrimp, calamari, crab, and fish paste ball, the Seafood Pho is a steaming, rich homemade broth that you could taste had been simmered for hours infused with a combination of spices and herbs. Beneath the delicious and light soup is thin linguine-shaped rice noodles, garnished with yellow onion, scallions, and cilantro, and we have a plate filled with basil, bean sprouts, jalapeño peppers, and a lime wedge to customize the dish to our liking. Despite eating what I thought was a lot, the remainder in the enormous bowl is large enough to ask for a container to take half home.

(Though we chose seafood, Pho can be vegetable with vegan broth, Pho Special, chicken, oxtail, shrimp, eye-round, a pick-three custom creation, or upgraded to Filet Mignon and even decadent Kobe Beef.)

The Vermicelli Combination, one of eight options, blends Simply Pho egg roll, grilled pork, grilled shrimp, pork sausage, and shrimp sausage wrap with vermicelli noodles, and lettuce, bean sprouts, sliced cucumber, green onions, crushed peanuts, accompanied by house special fish sauce. This is a divine presentation. You almost don’t want to mix up the meats into the pasta so as not to disturb the display. Of course, we do and it tastes, predictably, amazing.

Wishing I’d worn elastic pants, our final order is the Tofu Stir Fry with Mixed Vegetables with House Sauce with a considerable sized side of steamed white rice. This is one of nine options. Simply Pho does not skimp on portion size. Most people will be bringing food home (which, if you are like me, will not last till the next day.) The sauce combines sweet with savory for an exceptional end to a filling meal.

Though we tried five items, the menu is as vast and varied as the customers of Simply Pho, sure to offer something for every taste – meat-eater and vegan alike.

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When people think of Vietnamese, many think of fast food served deli-style. If our sampling is any indication, Pham is changing that perception.

“For me, I’m trying to create ambiance, where people can sit down, talk, and maybe have a date night and have a good, healthy meal. When people are happy about the food and being here, I really enjoy it. Making them happy makes me happy.”

Simply Pho is located in The Palm of Carrollwood shopping complex, 13149 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Hours of operation are 11:30 AM to 9:30 PM Monday through Thursday, and 11:30 AM to 10:00 PM on Friday and Saturday. To learn more about Simply Pho, visit https://simplyphotampa.com.