pho dragon: a neighborhood restaurant

Susan Burns is a one-woman show at this intimate Vietnamese restaurant tucked away on a side street in Nishi-Azabu. She greets. She takes orders. She cooks. She serves. She cleans. And she makes friends.

When she brings me my beef pho, she’s already telling me about the oil and the bone marrow in the broth before she even sets the bowl down on the table. Taking the spoon out of my hand, Susan flips the noodles in the broth, showing me how to eat the soup so that I get the least oil and the most flavor on the noodles.

“If you don’t like so much oil, honey, just tell me and next time I’ll put a paper towel on it,” she tells me as she heads back to the kitchen. She repeatedly worries about the oil, even as I rapidly (gluttonously) work my way through the soup.

Don’t worry, Susan. I wouldn’t change a thing.

The beef pho has a thick (and yes, oily but not too oily) broth, not spicy but delightfully aromatic. A hearty portion of beef sits amid the noodles — thick cuts of beef so tender they fold and shred as you pick them up with your chopsticks and melt apart in your mouth. The pho comes with a plate of sprouts and lemon wedges to cut the oil.

With an English menu, it was easy for me to order, and there were several dishes that sounded appetizing and that I’ll probably try in the future, including the spicy beef “bun” noodle soup that Keith had. We also ordered a side of Morning Glory to share (a Thai dish cooked with water spinach and chilis), which was deceptively spicy and a perfectly nuanced combination of crispy stalk and drenched leaf.

But although the food was delicious, the genuine neighborly vibe may just be the key attraction of this place.

The small dining room feels almost like it could be someone’s apartment. We’re the visiting neighbors eating in the living room at this intimate dinner party while our tiny little hostess bustles back and forth from the kitchen.

From behind the tall kitchen counter, Susan chats with us about her hometown, her travels, and her family in Florida as she cleans dishes and we eat our pho. She’s loud, direct, funny, and unfiltered. She laughs about how much meat some Americans want in their pho. She makes jokes about how hard it is running the restaurant on her own.

Although we were the only customers at the time, I get the impression Pho Dragon (or Susan, really) has a loyal and intimate set of hungry patrons. As we eat, a woman comes to the front door asking for the restaurant’s hours because every time she comes by the door is closed. Susan explains to us that the restaurant is often rented out for private parties and that’s probably why the woman thought it was closed. I guess we were lucky.

Susan tells us she also hosts a happy hour every once in a while with a DJ. Cracking out a few hard belly laughs, she tells us it’s funny to have people ordering pho while a DJ pumps music out of the corner of the tiny room. She even pulls out her iPad and shows me videos of the latest party on Facebook. It certainly looks packed.

As we’re getting ready to leave, Susan starts pressing us with gifts. “Did you like that coconut juice you ordered? Here, take a couple cans home with you,” she urges, explaining that we won’t be able to find them in Tokyo supermarkets because she orders them from a special grocer. “Here, take some lemongrass for your cooking,” she says, and shows me how to pound the lemongrass before cutting it up for Thai curry. She walks us to the door, all the while giving me cooking tips and offering more groceries to fill my purse.

When we leave, we’re fat and happy and loaded up with a smorgasbord of Southeast Asian ingredients. With a smiling Susan laughing and waving to us from the front stoop, it feels more like heading home after a family gathering than leaving a restaurant for the first time.

Tokyo is a big city, and, especially as an expat, it can feel distant and impersonal. But step into Pho Dragon, and you instantly have a new friend, a delicious meal, an entertaining evening, and a whole bunch of cooking tips. All for the price of one.