Hummus and pho. They're just chickpea dip and soup, right? Not even close. The holy quest for perfect hummus is practically a religion of its own in Israel. In Vietnam, pho is a way of life. Now Philly has two new ateliers dedicated to these crafts - both unapologetically casual and refreshingly affordable - where the pursuit of these staples in their highest forms is so single-minded, there's practically nothing else on the menu.
"Is this it?" says my guest, holding-up an index card-sized menu at Stock.
"What are you going to write?" asks Michael Solomonov, Zahav's co-owner, upon learning of my plans to write a review of Dizengoff, his new hummus stand. "Two sentences?"
OK, so here goes: After several memorable meals at Stock and Dizengoff, I'm convinced there's power in focusing on a single specialty and perfecting the exquisite details. One of these is so good, my lunch world will never be the same.
Tyler Akin, 30, knows about Israeli flavors as a former sous-chef at Zahav, where "lamb was a big part of my life." He knows Thai food, too, having worked at the Northern Thai kitchen of Little Serow in Washington D.C. And he's married to Nicole Reigle, 29, who grew up on her Thai mother's cooking.
At Stock, however, the 18-seat BYO they launched together on East Girard Avenue, it's the aroma of star anise and Saigon cinnamon that fills the air with exotic Vietnamese spice. Pho, that labor-intensive beef noodle soup, is the primary pursuit here - ideal for a tiny open kitchen outfitted with only induction burners (thus cleverly avoiding the need for a $20,000 exhaust hood).
Inspired by a trip to Southeast Asia, Akin hews close to tradition here (big bowls of broth, thin rice noodles, multiple cuts of beef, bouquets of Thai basil) but takes great pains to deliver a modern upgrade. Only the highest-quality, hormone-free beef bones go into the 20-hour-plus process, steeped with charred ginger and spices from New York's famed La Boîte à Epices (with no MSG shortcuts).
But does it pay off? I'm not convinced that most of the soup-slurping public will know. After an extensive pho crawl through South Philly's many traditional (and cheaper) soup halls, I found more depth and beefy integrity in Akin's brew. His $9 bowls are meticulously built. But there's also something missing - a native edge to the seasoning - that prevents it from redefining beef pho in the way it could.
Where Stock truly excels, and the best reason to hang with Fishtown hipsters at the counter, are the small menu's beef-free options. The mushroom pho packs an umami punch the beef pho lacks. The shredded green papaya starter is one of the most irresistible salads in town, the crunchy threads and roasted peanuts basking in a tart and funky fish sauce-lime dressing that flickers with chile heat. Of the daily banh mi hoagies, which included tasty chicken meatball and unexpectedly bland pork sausage, the surprising winner was filled with custardy tofu, bright with soy-garlic marinade, pickled cabbage, and creamy Japanese mayo.
The thin-sliced raw cobia, splashed with fish sauce, mint, and matchsticks of Persian cucumber, would rock any sushi bar. Simple cubes of sweet pineapple, topped with a cloud of whipped coconut milk, are a startlingly refreshing simple finale.
Such non-pho successes make me wonder if the subtle art of soup was, in fact, the best use of Akin's obvious talents and limited space. Philly could use great Thai food more than a Viet upgrade. So hopefully Stock is just the soup course, with more Akin to come.
Co-chef Emily Seaman introduces Dizengoff and chef Tyler Akin introduces Stock at inquirer.com/labanreviews