The Upper West Side has historically not been the best part of town to get a bowl of pho. Sure, we have Saiguette on 106th, up near the northwest corner of Central Park, but apart from that, most neighborhood versions are found in pan-Asian restaurants and frankly not that great, often with pallid broths and excess sweetness. Now Two Wheels has appeared at 426 W. 80th Street, equidistant from Zabar’s and the American Museum of Natural History.
Though the sign on the door looks slapdash (there’s also a tiny neon bicycle in the window), the inside is crisply outfitted in the usual fast-casual style, with a line of small square tables clad in blonde wood flanked by backless stools and a banquette that’s as hard as a pew in a fundamentalist church. These lead up to an order counter that looks over a high wall into a bustling raised kitchen.
Cut to the pho. Two are offered in substantial deep bowls and chef Jonathan Vu has made some changes to the usual Vietnamese beef noodle soup. One rendition is deluxe (pho dac biet, $15.95), but instead of the traditional raw beef, brisket, flank steak, tendon, and tripe, or some similar combination, the variety meats like tendon and tripe have been dropped. This is not a bad thing, I suppose, because many diners don’t seem to like them.
Vu’s deluxe pho instead features raw steak, sirloin, brisket, and meatballs. The brisket is shredded rather than sliced, and the meatball is not the usual pounded beef ball, but a meatball like something you might find in an Italian hero, though minus the herbs. It seems like this pho is being groomed for popularity. Another, simpler version is available for $11.95 and $13.95, the prices representing a choice of one meat or two meats. Apart from those options, Two Wheels’s pho comes with the usual accompaniments of sprouts, basil, lime, fresh jalapeños, hoisin, and chile sauce.
The rest of the menu is compact, and a friend and I stumbled on several gems, while probably missing others. The most spectacular was the chef’s adaptation of banh xeo ($11.95 or $12.95), the sprout-filled crepe. Available with chicken, pork, tofu, or shrimp, the dish comes configured as two hard-shell tacos, with the shell composed of the usual rice batter wrapper, only deep fried. Brilliant! Served with nuoc cham, the fishy and sweet vinegar, the shrimp version was splendid and fun to eat, like the Vietnamese answer to Taco Bell.
Also good were the chicken wings, dark and crusty with spices and substantially spicy. Their maximum stickiness makes you wish there was somewhere to wash your hands besides the wet naps provided. The papaya salad was serviceable, with good fresh shredded fruit and vegetables but lacking the punch of fish sauce. I’m looking forward to trying the single banh mi, which looked pretty good as a fellow devoured it at the next table.
Two Wheels makes a great pit stop on the Upper West Side, with a pho that really hits the mark, but it’s those crazy banh xeo tacos I’ll come back for. 426 Amsterdam Ave, between 80th and 81st streets, Upper West Side