Moto Pho Co., Charlottesville’s answer to a high-low style of glammed-up street fare, promises a lot but falls short on the delivery. Tucked into the same West Main location as the new Eloise in Charlottesville’s increasingly developed midtown area, the restaurant looks inviting from the outside and impeccable inside. Bright white walls, minimalist lighting, and plenty of stainless steel, Moto Pho Co. feels like Charlottesville does L.A. The old auto service building has been scrubbed, painted, and shellacked into a place as stylish and minimalist as its menu. The restaurant offers a very brief list of options, composed of eponymous pho dishes, starters such as spiced edamame, and other Vietnamese small plates. The easy elegance of the place – and its packed-to-the-gills status at 12:45 on a Tuesday – set the bar high for an incredible meal.
While my party waited for another member, we ate sesame seed-flecked edamame and drank beautifully presented Vietnamese coffees. The edamame was intensely flavorful, with crispy shallot bits and sesame oil coating our fingertips. The Vietnamese coffees were presented in elaborate contraptions, thick, creamy, and substantial enough to stand up to iced glasses. The salted lemonade, however, tasted like a more expensive version of lemon-lime Gatorade. The servers were talkative and helpful; anticipation was high for our meal.
But the problem with a restaurant centering its menu (and name) around a single dish occurs when the dish itself is less than stellar. While our coffee and edamame was delicious, the pho itself was subpar at best. While the presentation of the dish was incredible – thin slices of beef and artful swirls of noodles swimming in a light broth, garnished with greenery – the taste was flat and somewhat flavorless. One of my companions said, “It needs something” and the rest of the table quickly agreed. The flank steak in my pho was very overcooked, the broth lacked seasoning and depth, and the herbs were just… herbs. Two friends had ordered the vegetarian pho, which they found similarly bland. The portions, while gigantic, were not cheap and, more importantly, not satisfying.
I have to hand it to Moto Pho Co. for bringing an easy, elegant, West Coast feel to Charlottesville, but the food needs a little more finesse. No matter how pleasant of an ambiance or how fresh of a dish, I need a restaurant that has a bite to match its bark. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, Moto Pho Co. will grant its menu as much attention as the space and vibe themselves.
Jed says: “It seems like things may have improved since Casey paid a visit – things are always up and down after opening. Though I was similarly underwhelmed with the first bite or two of my pho with ox tail, a few sprinklings of bean sprouts, basil, lime, and thinly sliced chili peppers added a texture and complexity to the otherwise basic broth that I found increasingly irresistible as I slurped my way quickly to the bottom of the bowl. Give me some coarsely chopped peanuts and I’m yours forever.”
Rating: Casey: Jed:
Pros: Busy, social atmosphere, good starters.
Cons: Mediocre main dishes, confused service, considerable wait.
Price: $7.95 for a large pho, $10-15 for a complete meal
Parking: Anywhere on West Main; no directly available lot
Hours: Lunch 11am – 3pm, dinner 5-9, every day.
Facebook: Moto Pho Co.