There’s not too much competition for the most expensive bowl of pho in town. While most Vietnamese cafes offer an all-in bowl of Saigon-style pho for $8 or $10, Nightingale Nine pours a premium Hanoi pho for $15, and so does Hanoi House at the same price. Even Bunker, an intentionally buzzy spot, demands only $17, or an extra $4 with oxtail. We have fine-dining Vietnamese restaurants, too, but these places offer it as an app. Thus the pho at Le Colonial comes in at $12, while that of Indochine is $13, both for smaller servings. This leaves Rice & Gold, which serves a bowl for $30, an open field to offer the priciest version in New York.
This latest project of the ubiquitous Dale Talde is located in Chinatown in the Hotel 50 Bowery, near Canal Street. In case you don’t remember, Talde came in sixth place in season four of Top Chef and managed to parlay that dubious distinction into one of the most successful careers of any of the show’s grads. Rice & Gold is located in the hotel’s straggling ground floor, clad in bare concrete with exposed pillars, Tao-ish décor, and spray paint graffiti that colorfully covers an entire wall.
Actually, Rice & Gold — which mounts an intriguing, pan-Asian menu — is pho crazy. At lunch and dinner there are Shanghai soup dumplings inspired by pho. Five to an order ($16), these come in a bamboo steamer on a heap of bean sprouts, with purple onions, cilantro, and holy basil piled awkwardly on top. While Talde missed an opportunity by not putting actual Vietnamese beef balls inside, the crumbly ground meat filling is flavorful and the broth that spurts out tastes like pho broth.
The lunch menu offers a duck pho ($14), which is an interesting variation and one consistent with Vietnamese cuisine and its underpinnings. Two thick slices of duck sit on top, with lots of duck frags underneath in a rich duck broth. Served with a tiny salad, this amphibious pho is only a prelude to the bigger, more ambitious bowl of pho served at suppertime.
But the big one is Talde’s “Three Kings Pho,” named after the restaurant group that owns the place and not the dudes who showered baby Jesus with gifts. At $30, it’s likely the city’s most expensive version. The bowl is more generous than the lunchtime duck pho, though the quantity of broth is on the low side. That’s OK, because it’s rich and also salty. Instead of arriving on the side, the sprouts, basil, and cilantro come already added to the bowl, and there are no sauces, making it more of the Hanoi than the Saigon type.
With a long marrow bone sticking out, this bowl looks spectacular. And the flavors keep up with the appearance, a subtle combo of charred onion and sweet spices not overwhelmed as is sometimes the case with star anise and cinnamon. The noodles are slightly finer than usual, but it’s the beef that really makes the bowl memorable. The thin-sliced raw loin is dry-aged beef, and I found myself eager to gobble it before it cooked in the steaming broth.
There are also rectangular chunks of beef short rib that are soft, filling the mouth with flavor on every squishy chew. The bone marrow has a toasty taste, best scraped and added to the broth, since there’s no toast to spread it on. Really, this is one of the city’s most memorable bowls of pho, but it’s up to you to decide if you want to pay the $30, plus tax and tip. At least one bowl could be a whole meal.