To be counted among the best in mountain climbing, you have to scale the Seven Summits, the highest alps of each continent.
To become a landmark restaurant is slightly easier, but restaurateurs must still succeed in diverse areas. Many can conquer the lower peaks – like offering food that brings customers back and figuring out how to set workable prices.
Medium-sized challenges include maintaining an appropriate physical space without its cost swelling fatally because of external factors or landlord demands. Then there’s finding and keeping reliable employees.
Places can do most of those things and still not conquer the toughest peak of all: consistency. One off-night can sour a relationship with a restaurant. Two is grounds for divorce. 99 Fast Food, the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Buffalo, doesn’t lure with decor. It kills with consistency. The flavors, aromas and textures take me right back to the beginning, when people were still afraid of Y2K.
Since 1999, starting in a spot across from City Hall now occupied by the federal courthouse, Ho Nguyen fed Buffalo’s hunger for pho. It remains a mainstay at the spot Nguyen opened in 2003 just south of the University at Buffalo’s Main Street campus, now under the ownership of Minh Tran and partners.
The beef noodle soup, Vietnam’s national dish, arrives in big bowls of star-anise-scented broth, rice noodles and sliced beef or other proteins. It’s served with a plate of potential add-ins like bean sprouts, licorice-scented Asian basil, sliced fresh jalapenos and a lime wedge, letting imbibers doctor it up to their taste, adding dashes of chile sauce and the Asian barbecue sauce hoisin as desired.
It’s $9.50 for the small, a funny name for a quart of soup. Large ($10.50) is about 50% more and suitable for sharing. Pho tai, with paper-thin raw beef cooked by the piping hot broth, is most popular. Pho heo includes loads of sliced poached pork. Pho dac biet has some of everything: brisket, raw beef, chewy beef meatballs and tripe.
First, though, consider appetizers. The Vietnamese egg roll ($1.85) is a preternaturally crispy-skinned pastry cigar stuffed with ground pork, shredded carrot, mushroom and rice noodles. It usually arrives painfully hot, which is why there’s a lettuce leaf on the plate: it’s edible insulation so you can dip it in the nuoc cham (sweetened fish sauce) in comfort.
Grilled beef spare ribs ($2.75) and marinated pork threaded on a skewer ($2.50) are more meaty nibbles, and if you want to try pho broth without committing to the whole bowl, you can get a cup of the broth ($2.99) with sliced meatballs.
Beef stew fans should consider the bo kho ($10.50/$11.50), a big bowl of tender carrots, beef chunks and onions in a zippy lemongrass-caramel broth. Rice noodles are hiding below. The beef has some gnarliness, but if you pick your spots you won’t feel too Cro-Magnon.
All said, the No. 1 plate here, far and away, is the con tam suong nong ($9.50/$10.75), No. 35. Sliced pork butt is marinated, griddled to order and painted with scallion oil and caramel, then served with rice and cucumber slices. Its sweet-salty-savory aspects and the delicate crunchiness of charred edges might make it a habit.
Consider also the sausage fried rice ($9.50/$11), with sliced Chinese lap cheong sausage, chewy and sweet like pork Gummi bears, tumbled with cubes of Vietnamese bologna, peas and carrots in extraordinarily fluffy rice perfumed with wok hay smokiness.
If you’re looking for something lighter, try bun ($11.50). That’s a rice noodle bowl with islands of lettuce, bean sprouts, shredded pickled carrot, cucumber, cilantro, crushed peanuts and fried scallion, with your choice of protein. Pour proffered nuoc cham, if you like, add sauces, and stir it up. The one topped with a chopped egg roll, pork skewer and grilled shrimp makes a splendid survey of the possibilities.
Despite all the carnivorous offerings, vegans and vegetarians can do well here. There’s a tofu version of the egg roll ($1.85). There’s also a fresh spring roll ($2.50) with lettuce, rice noodles and cilantro, wrapped in tender rice paper and served with peanut sauce. Tofu is one of the filling choices, along with shrimp and meat.
Lemongrass tofu, served over rice ($9.50/$11.50), is my favorite among a half-dozen tofu dishes. Rousingly spicy chunks of tofu, golden with curry powder, are stir-fried with onions and intensely aromatic lemongrass.
Service is acceptably attentive, though you might have to wait for someone to put down their phone.
One last point: Though 99’s pho is my favorite, it is fair to note that there is some disagreement among Buffalo pho connoisseurs about whether it is surpassed by Pho Dollar, Pho Lantern or Saigon Bangkok.
I’d say enjoy what you enjoy. Whenever the arguments start among my companions, I change the subject. Who wants to be forced to decide what’s more important, friend or pho?
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99 Fast Food – 8 plates (out of 10)
3398 Bailey Ave., 836-6058
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: appetizers $1.85-$2.99, entrees $8-$16.50
Atmosphere: urban caféteria
Wheelchair accessible: side door