Rock’n’Pho ~ Pho Cao Offers Taste, Talent, and a Ton of Character

The Place: Pho Cao Live Music Restaurant and Bar
The Dish: Pho Cao Dac Biet, Shaken Beef, Soft Spring Rolls, Nuoc Dua Tuoi
Location: 7436 E. McDowell Road, Scottsdale | 480.947.2608
Hours: Sun–Mon 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tue 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Wed–Thu 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., Fri–Sat 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
By: Anthony Wallace

When an unlikely combination of parts yields a beautifully harmonious whole, the result is magic. Such is the case with Scottsdale establishment Pho Cao, a restaurant, bar, and live music venue where you can slurp a delicious bowl of brothy, noodle soup (known as pho), drink your weight in Sake bombs (just $5 after 11 p.m.), and mosh to punk rock, all without leaving the premises. Owner, Victor Cao had one non-negotiable piece of criteria for himself when preparing to open his restaurant: it had to be different.

Victor saw dozens of nearly identical Vietnamese restaurants in the Valley, but none were open late. So now, when his competitors close, the party is just getting started at Pho Cao. Open until 2 a.m. on the weekends, and located on McDowell in between Scottsdale Road and Hayden, it is a popular destination for the Old Town Scottsdale party crowd. But it’s equally popular for daytime diners, and has live music nearly every night of week—save for Monday, which is reserved for those who prefer to enjoy their pho in peace and quiet.

Pho Cao isn’t fancy by any means. It has a laid back, fun, boisterous vibe that makes you feel comfortable and included–just like Victor. He admits he would have a lot more free time if he hired DJs, but to him, there is something special about live musical performances. Special enough, in fact, to justify the long hours and headaches associated with booking acts, managing sound guys and security guards, and maintaining fragile sound equipment. Victor’s love of live music harkens back to his childhood in post-war Saigon where, as a poor child of disgraced American-supporting politicians, he would sneak into disco shows (the groovin’ 80s happened in Vietnam too!).

During Victor’s youth, the country was suffering from barren fields ravaged in the war, so stir fry was concocted with whatever was available; often using tapioca flour pudding and, what Victor calls, “weird pastas” supplied by foreign aid. Gradually though, things improved and Victor learned to cook with the full gamut of southeastern Asian ingredients and spices—and Pho Cao uses just about all of them.

If you can contain yourself and hold off on immediately diving into a bowl of pho, I highly recommend starting with the Soft Spring Rolls (or Goi Cuon), filled with shrimp and steamed pork, accompanied by (and I feel qualified to say this, as a life-long aficionado) a side of fantastic peanut sauce ($6). Next, I elected to go with the Pho Cao Dac Biet AKA P1 ($11), a delicious dish offering just about every texture imaginable: from the tender tendon, to the perfectly tough flank, to the melt-in-your-mouth brisket, to the airy but substantial meatballs—and that was just the beef! The al dente rice noodles, accompanied by optional bean sprouts, jalapenos, basil, and cilantro (use them all!) provide wonderful crunch, while soaking in the broth, which is really the star of the show. The beef broth at Pho Cao is brewed with love for over 24 hours and is seasoned with a masterful mixture of herbs, including ginger, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, star anise, and onion. It is both light and filling; and if you hadn’t worked it out by now, the flavors are complex and tantalizing. By the way, it’s superfood healthy. Us Westerners are just catching up to the Vietnamese in realizing the great nutritional value of bone broth, and the antimicrobial benefits of garlic and cinnamon. As Victor explained to me, “Vietnamese food is all about texture.” And that came through in every bite.

My dining mate devoured the Shaken Beef with steamed rice: succulent strips of filet mignon steak stir fried with garlic, onion, and peppers and bathed in a savory and subtly sweet oyster sauce ($15). For dessert we shared a Nuoc Dua Tuoi, which is simply a fresh, young coconut cracked open, the contents drunk through a straw ($5). I’m not sure whether to praise Pho Cao or nature for this part of the meal but it was incredible. It was the richest, sweetest hydration experience of my life.

Pho Cao has developed a regular weekly schedule of fun. Happy hour is daily from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. to close. It features the aforementioned $5 Sake Bombs along with deals like buy one get one half-off appetizers, and $1 off pho. Entertainment varies slightly by the night. Tuesday is the Blues Jam, an event that’s open to the public, where the instruments and sound system are provided; you just show up and take the stage! Wednesday features original singer/songwriter acts; Thursday offers good, old fashioned karaoke; and the weekends are for getting loud. Victor typically has three to four bands per night and is booked out for months. His unmistakable passion for live music has made him somewhat of a legend in the local scene.

This memorable dinner was not my first encounter with Victor; in fact, my band has played Pho Cao a handful of times, the last time being at least two years ago, yet he still remembered all four of my bandmates names. Victor is an incredibly busy man, but he knows what he loves. He set out to open a restaurant that was different, and he absolutely succeeded. At Pho Cao, Victor has created that elusive thing that can’t be bought or forced, but must come organically: character. Come to Pho Cao for live music, inexpensive Sake bombs, a full belly, and a boosted immune system.

eat | drink | share | pho

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