Counting meals at the former Niagara Street location across from City Hall, I have probably eaten at 99 Fast Food more often than any restaurant in Western New York. ¶ That’s because I crave Vietnamese dishes like big steaming bowls of pho, the classic beef noodle soup, and plates of grilled pork on rice, glossy with caramel sauce and scallion oil. Dishes arrived quickly and were priced right at its City Hall location, lost to the federal courthouse footprint in 2005, and the surviving Bailey Avenue store, two blocks south of the University at Buffalo’s Main Street campus. ¶ More importantly, 99 was preternaturally consistent. The effort it took to get in the door was always rewarded. Consistency is the hobgoblin of casual family restaurants, but 99 nailed it.
So when news came in January that the Nguyen family had sold 99, its fans held their breath. Most are breathing again, because the kitchen at 99 hasn’t skipped a beat. The Vietnamese egg rolls stuffed with minced pork, carrot and bean thread ($1.85) are as shatteringly crisp as ever, beating the pants off any Chinese version I’ve had. The star anise-scented pho broth ($6-$8.50) remains deeply delicious, to other pho freaks, too; I asked around.
The room is strictly family diner, with Formica tables and booths, and potted plants hanging on to life. The casual service can grind to a creep when it’s busy. But even if you’ve already had the pho and the grilled pork, 99’s menu offers plenty more discoveries. Groups can sit at one of the big round tables and share an assortment of dishes on the Lazy Susan.
The new owners even added a couple of dishes, like tofu and tomato stir-fry ($7.95 small). It’s strips of tofu, fried for more texture, wok-tossed with fresh tomato in a semi-sweet ketchupy sauce, possibly attractive to vegans and vegetarians. There are several other vegetarian stir-fries and a tofu egg roll.
Carnivores do get most of the attention. Bo kho ($7.50 small), beef stew with big hunks of carrots, noodles and more in a caramel lemon-grass broth is a hearty wonder, especially in winter. There is one caveat: The hunks of brisket can include tough sinew that is edible, but may creep out the finicky. Eat around it.
The beef stew, like every bowl of soup, comes with a plate of herbs, bean sprouts, jalapeño slices and a lime wedge. With the hoisin sauce and two kinds of chile sauce on the table, you’re invited to doctor up Vietnamese soups to your taste.
The beef short rib barbecue ($7.25 small) is four thin strips of glazed grilled beef over rice. Good luck with that fork. It’s best gnawed off the bones by hand. First you might want to moisten it with the little dish of sweetened fish sauce and shredded carrot that came with it.
Not so the classic “BBQ Pork” over rice ($6.95 small), thin marinated strips of pork butt grilled until crispy-edged but not dried out and arranged over a bed of rice that gets indelibly smudged with its goodness. (The way I go is to dump the sauce over it first.)
The teriyaki combo ($9.95) includes grilled chicken, sliced pork and beef strips over rice. This meat is drier, almost jerkylike, but lacquered with an outstanding teriyaki sauce, with more on the side.
Also outstanding are the buns. Those are Vietnamese noodle bowls ($6.50-$8.95), with your choice of grilled shrimp, pork skewers, egg rolls and such atop thin rice vermicelli. Islands of shredded carrot, cucumber and chopped roasted peanut wait for the ritual saucing of the dish, followed by a vigorous stir to combine everything. A cool, crunchy, refreshing bowl of bun is one of my favorite summertime lunches.
Under “rice,” you might consider the Vietnamese combo platter of barbecue pork, shredded pork and an egg ($7.50 small). The spicy lemon-grass chicken stir-fry ($7 small), lit up with curry powder, is another popular dish.
There are exotic fruit shakes like avocado and jackfruit ($2.95), a cool treat. I’d never tried the durian, flavored with a powerfully aromatic fruit people love or hate. The kids who tried it really dug it, while my first thought was garlic-mango, but not in a yucky way.
Turns out no matter how long you’ve known 99, there’s more to discover. Despite its scruffy diner face, 99 Fast Food is an institution that every pho lover in Western New York should know.