I was having coffee with a friend this week, and he said something that made me think. We were having that time-honoured conversation about independents and chains, probably both saying things that we’d said dozens of times before, and discussing the frustration I always get walking through Caversham, seeing the huge queues outside Costa when better coffee is available in three different cafes all a couple of minutes walk away.
“I nearly put something on social media complaining about that sort of thing” he said, “but then I decided not to. Because if that’s happening, it’s a sign that independents still need to improve their offering.”
We talked about it a little more, but afterwards I found myself wondering whether it was true. Is it that all the people in Reading who flock to our many Costas, Caffe Neros and Starbucks know all about Workhouse, C.U.P., Lincoln and Tamp? Have they tried them and just decided they don’t like them? Do they prefer bigger, more sugary drinks, or is it that they have no idea the alternatives even exist? It’s easy, in an echo chamber on social media, waving our metaphorical pom-poms for indie businesses, to consider failing to use them unthinkable. And yet people still queue for the Caversham Costa: is it that they’re wrong, or more that we’re missing something?
Of course, like everything, it’s more nuanced than that. Maybe those customers are drawn by things like comfy seats and plentiful wi-fi, neither of which has ever been a priority for most of Reading’s independent cafés. Or perhaps it comes down to the consistency of a chain experience: I’ve been to Workhouse, for example and had very good coffees. But occasionally I’ve had iffy ones too. If I went to Nero, I’m pretty sure my coffee would be much more uniform – middling, but uniformly middling. Some people like that. Some people are risk averse, and after all, risk aversion is back in fashion. And all this is even more true of chain restaurants, especially ones where that uniformity is guaranteed by all the food being uniformly prepared in a central kitchen.
All this, in turn, got me thinking about my own attitude to chains and that, inexorably, made me think of Pho. Because back in the days before the pandemic, on the relatively rare occasions where I ordered a Deliveroo, Pho was one of the main restaurants I would order from. I never had a bad meal from them, and I had my favourite dishes of theirs that never let me down.
That’s probably more representative of most people’s takeaway experiences. It’s all very well ordering from a new restaurant every week to try them out, for the purposes of writing a review, but for most people the act of ordering a takeaway is meant to be one of self-care, with no surprises. It’s a present to yourself to take a night off cooking, and you don’t want to squander it. Trying to remove the element of disappointment is, I imagine, part of why some of you read this blog before you try somewhere new. So this week I decided to order from Pho, a bit of an old favourite, to try and work out whether my friend was right that independents still need to raise their game.
Pho, like its neighbour Honest Burger, is only on Deliveroo – and crucially, Deliveroo has been a big part of their offering ever since they opened. The majority of Pho’s restaurant menu is available for delivery, with a good range of starters and a mixture of mains which are either salads, the eponymous pho, curries, rice and noodle dishes. Starters hover around the six to seven pound mark, and mains cost between ten and thirteen pounds (this is another thing chains often get right: pricing that doesn’t exclude anybody).
I don’t write about vegetarian and vegan options often enough, but it’s worth pointing out that Pho’s menu has pretty impressive range in this respect, with dishes using vegetables, tofu or a chicken alternative – called “THIS isn’t chicken”, the Ronseal Quick-Drying Woodstain of soy-based products. I also don’t talk about gluten-free options enough – by which I mean ever – but again, Pho are very strong on this and the vast majority of items are gluten-free. And just to go for the hat trick of Things I Never Talk About, Pho has a kids’ menu too. This stuff is important, because this is what the best chains do well, designing a menu that has wide appeal. From my carnivorous, childless point of view I probably don’t pay that due respect often enough.
We ordered the things we always order, because this was an evening all about comfort and familiarity, and three starters and two mains came to forty-five pounds, not including rider tip. And, as so often with orders from the town centre, there were no real hiccups: we ordered at half-six, the rider was en route fifteen minutes later and he got to us in just under ten minutes, making another stop en route to my house. Everything was hot and everything was well packaged, in well-branded boxes, all of which were recyclable. Again, what this brought home is that delivery has never been a pandemic-mandated side hustle for Pho: it’s always been part of their business model, and I think that shows.
Our starters were variations on a theme (one of my favourite Pho starters, beef wrapped in betel leaf, isn’t available on the delivery menu) and all were really pretty good. Pho’s spring rolls, filled with pork and plenty of crunchy vegetables, are wonderful things, surprisingly light and without any greasiness and I always find it hard not to order them. I particularly liked them with the soy and ginger dip we tried, but they were also very good dabbed in the nuoc cham, a sweet and sharp clear dip (with fish sauce in it, apparently, although it didn’t come across strongly). Zoë had a particular weakness for the peanut sauce, which was thick and rich, a culinary Tim Nice-But-Dim.
For my money, Pho’s giant crab, prawn and pork spring roll is even better. You just get one bigger one, cut into two for six pounds. It might sound like a lot to shell out, but it’s crammed with firm king prawns, white crabmeat and pork and is truly a king among spring rolls. This only comes with nuoc cham – interesting that they’re prescriptive with this starter, whereas with the others you can pick whatever sauce you like – but it’s honestly so good that the dips feel like a sideshow. And again, I felt that chain consistency at work: I’ve had this starter many times, it always tastes the same and it always tastes marvellous. That’s how it should be in all restaurants, in theory at least. But theory doesn’t always translate into practice.
Only the summer rolls slightly underwhelmed me. You got two of these, each cut in half, filled with those meaty prawns, shredded vegetables and vermicelli noodles. We ordered these mainly at Zoë’s request, and eating them felt a bit like reading literary fiction – you’re aware that it’s the correct thing to do, you know on some level that it’s the virtuous choice but none of that made it especially enjoyable. Two portions of fried spring rolls crammed with varying amounts of pork is a tough act to follow, and it may be that I’m just a Philistine, but these didn’t massively do it for me.
That comes down to personal preference, I suspect. Looking back I wasn’t wild about summer rolls when I reviewed Pho, back in 2018, although I did prefer the versions at now-defunct MumMum when I went there later the same year. But each time I used the same sort of words – delicate here, subtle there. If you like delicate and subtle you’d probably love them: I am, let’s face it, neither delicate nor subtle and that probably explains why they didn’t provoke much passion in me.
Zoë’s regular main course at Pho is their Vietnamese chicken curry, and even the discovery that they recently added a new, spicier version to their menu didn’t deter her from ordering what she always has. To be honest, it was hard enough to persuade her to let me try a forkful so I could write about it. It was a lovely dish, with plenty of peanut and coconut and a clever mix of sweetness, fragrance and just enough heat – pretty mild, really, but hugely soothing. It came with “broken rice”, which looked remarkably unbroken to me, and felt like good value at twelve pounds. If I ever do go completely crazy and order something that isn’t my usual, I’d be tempted to go for the same dish but with strands of beef brisket instead.
My usual, though, is Pho’s com chien, chicken fried rice, by happy coincidence one of the cheapest main courses on the menu. I’ve written before about how much I love this dish, but I had almost forgotten how enjoyable it was. It’s a glorious mixture of rice, slivers of red onion, spring onion and plenty of shreds of chicken, with two star ingredients that lift it far above the usual. One is many, many flecks of chilli and the other is a smattering of tiny, chewy shell-on dried shrimps, every single one a little landmine of savoury joy. And what stops it from being dry, stodgy or boring is a little dish of dark, sweet sauce that you tip over it just before eating, binding the whole thing together and giving it a beautiful, glossy sheen.
“It’s a good dish” said Zoë, trying a forkful. “But it’s hot as balls.” She was right about that – it’s not for the faint-hearted, and my chilli tolerance has improved considerably since the first time I ever ate it, but it was a grateful pain, and a fantastic dish. I could eat it every week of my life and I’m not sure I would ever get bored.
So, what does this all tell us? My meal lived up to that intrinsic promise all chains make, that your meal should be relatively free of surprises: I enjoyed Pho every bit as much as I always have, and I’m not really sure I expected anything different. In that respect this review, probably more than any takeaway review I’ve written this year, comes the closest to depicting a meal I would have eaten off duty. But I’m not sure whether you can make that many sweeping generalisations about chains from my experience of Pho, because I’m not entirely convinced that Pho is representative of chains in general.
On some levels, you can say it is: the focus on reasonable pricing, the ability to cover a wide range of dietary choices and age groups are absolutely what chains do superbly. But I also think that Pho are especially good at this: they feel to me a cut above most chains. They are lucky that Vietnamese food lends itself well to a vegan or a gluten-free diet, but they have worked hard to maximise their appeal.
They have also given a lot of thought to how they make delivery work, right from the outset, and they’re better at delivery than most restaurants I’ve reviewed this year (I didn’t order pho from them, mainly because it’s not really my cup of tea, but I imagine they’d find a way to get that right in transit as well). And they are meticulous in their approach to expanding: they try to understand the local market and make contact with people in the food scenes of towns and cities where they choose to open new restaurants. They do their homework. I can’t imagine Taco Bell gave any of that a moment’s thought.
I’ve always felt that there are good chains and bad chains, and good independents and bad independents. It’s never been more difficult for independents: without the financial reserves most chains have, they will have to fight harder to survive. And I can think of many independent restaurants over the years that were easily good enough to deserve to flourish, but failed. They needed exposure, they needed time and they needed people to give them a chance. It would help if our local media had written a fraction of the articles about any of those restaurants that they’ve rattled off in the last few months about our impending branch of Wendy’s (seven so far this year and counting), but them’s the breaks.
So yes, I know what my friend was driving at, that independents always have to try to improve their offering. But I also think that, in Reading at least, they feel more likely to try and do that than chains. Chains can rely on a steady stream of customers visiting them based on brand recognition alone, and they can much more easily become complacent as a result. The bottom line is that a good restaurant is a good restaurant, and a good restaurant should drive all restaurants to do better. And based on my meal this week I think that most restaurants – whoever owns them – could learn something from Pho.
1-1a Kings Walk, Reading, RG1 2HG
Order via: Deliveroo only