It’s just shy of six o’clock at night, and Lithgow’s Main Street is pretty much deserted. The temperature has dipped down into the single digits and an icy wind blows up the empty street.
In contrast to the stately historical facades that line this canyon-like street, the bamboo-edged Pho 68 feels colourful and organic. While the outside tables are understandably empty on this unseasonably cold evening, inside is alive with people, including a steady stream of locals after take-away.
Bright pink and aqua lighting draws your attention to their key offering: beef noodle soup or pho. They’re mounted on the wall above a colourful altar. The art is mostly aquatic, with lilies and a circlet of bright orange koi.
The rest of the wall space is taken up with hand-written value packs, all pitched at families; and a professionally printed juice bar menu board that’s set behind a fruit-filled glass counter.
While the chairs are uncomfortable, the staff are warm and friendly. A television in one corner has half of the dining room transfixed. I choose a chair facing the other way and have to contend with pairs of glazed eyes staring past me. It’s an odd choice for a place where you come to partake in a family meal, though thankfully the volume is turned down.
In the plastic-covered photograph menu you’ll find a range of the expected Vietnamese suspects. We chose to begin with a Vietnamese Pancake ($16.50) that arrived dripping off both sides of the platter. Filled with fried pork mince and decent, medium-sized prawns, the generously proportion, crisp pancake tastes of powdered turmeric and char. Wrapped in iceberg lettuce shells, it’s surprisingly compelling - one of the best renditions of this classic Vietnamese dish I’ve had in the last few years.
Perhaps only by contrast, the Soft Shell Crab ($14.50) is disappointing. Something added to the batter is so thirst-inducing, I suspect the not-very-well-hidden hand of mì chính or MSG; and the dish isn't saved by the accompanying sweet-chilli sauce. We down water and most of our wine - which had to be gathered from the BWS a short drive away - to compensate.
Special Pho ($16.50) contains the full range of beef, from meatballs to stretchy, thin slices. The broth is soft in flavour, but feels honest, homey and ever-so-slightly dominated by star anise. The thin rice noodles aren’t anything to write home about, especially when compared to the fat, transparent offerings in the Crab Rice Noodle Soup ($14.50).
Known as bún riêu cua, this northern speciality is made with tomatoes and pork bones, seasoned with fermented shrimp paste. Along with the slippery noodles, you’ll find a crab claw still topped with a pincher, an unshelled but good quality king prawn, and some tasteless lean pork slices. Despite the floating green herbs, the most dominant flavour reminds me of mullet roe. While this Pho 68 soup lacks the traditional sourness usually created with tamarind, it’s good enough to warm up this cold and wintery night.
54 Main Street, Lithgow
Ph: (02) 6351 4302