3398 Bailey Ave., Buffalo, NY 14215
Rating: [learn more]
Fine to good renditions of a number of Vietnamese classics, ranging from Pho soup to Banh Mi and rice paper rolls; ingredients are fresh and portions are generally reasonable for the price. Lots of choices in items and sizing.
Certain underwhelming entrees and single-serving appetizer approach may put off some diners; less than fantastic neighborhood and parking.
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Amherst Buffalo Japanese Vietnamese
"99 Fast Food isn't a superstar Vietnamese restaurant, but by the standards of the many places we've visited over the years, it's not one that we'd steer people away from, either."
Pho. If you don't know it already, learn the word - pronounced "fa," as it has been amusingly co-opted by "What the Pho!" restaurants elsewhere - and know that it describes an increasingly popular Vietnamese beef broth soup, typically served in an oversized bowl filled with flat rice noodles and topped with various pieces of tender beef. In some cities, a good selection of entree-sized Pho soups can be nearly enough to create steady patronage for a restaurant, and location aside, 99 Fast Food Restaurant on the border of Buffalo and Amherst might have been one of those places.
Aside from the fish tank near the front door, there's nothing fancy about 99 Fast Food's Bailey Avenue setting, which has bars on its front befitting the grittier texture its neighborhood has taken on in the last decade. On a related note, despite plenty of seating inside, there's virtually no parking - a challenge that has discouraged us on some past occasions from stopping in - and the patrons on our second visit to the place were few in number, scattered across clean but dated booths and tables on a slippery, rug-covered tile floor. A note on the front door warns diners not to slip.
Thankfully, the menu is pretty compelling. Recently updated, it offers primarily Vietnamese fare alongside a handful of Japanese items, which look to have been tossed in to accommodate diners who mightn't know the difference between the cuisines, or just have a hankering for dishes such as Teriyaki Pork ($6-$7) or Beef ($6.50/$8.75) rather than any of the Vietnamese classics offered here. Unlike most other local Vietnamese places, 99 Fast Food actually offers the French occupation-inspired Banh Mi sandwich, a baguette filled with with Vietnamese meats and vegetables, which sells here for $3 - or buy five, get one free. And though the menu has literally nothing exotic, leaving out chef's specialties found at places such as Saigon Bangkok, there are a handful or two of common dishes, such as plates of broken white rice and BBQ pork ($6.35/$8.50) or roasted chicken ($6.50/$8.50), most of which can be had in "small" or "large" sizes, alongside large selections of both Pho soup and Bun, a room temperature noodle dish.
It's hard to really impress with or screw up Pho: a good restauranteur needs only to give customers a wide choice of meats, prepare them properly, and make sure that the broth and noodles taste fresh. 99 Fast Food is in the right ballpark here: the menu offers eight different Pho variants, ranging from traditionally rare beef to "variety" - a cornucopia of cow parts - or seafood, and you can also pick from three bowl sizes: small ($6.05) is a hint below a regular or medium-sized bowl at most places, large ($7.70) is a step above regular and enough to stuff, and XL/extra-large ($9.35) could probably be shared by two people.
We picked the small-sized Pho Dac Biet variety version, and were heartened by the variety of meat in our bowl, which ranged from tender strip steak to chewy tripe, just as it should have. Like most Vietnamese places, 99's server drops off a plate of basil, bean sprouts, sliced hot peppers, and cilantro for your garnishing pleasure, giving the soup the option of an almost healthy appearance; unfortunately, the broth wasn't especially strong in flavor or hot in temperature. Another member of our group ordered a shrimp version (Pho Tom) in the large size, finding it adequate in overall size and number of shrimp, but similarly light on flavor in the broth. We weren't bothered tremendously by the weak broth, but it certainly wasn't quite what it could have been.
We were impressed by the $3 Banh Mi sandwiches, testing four different versions - the standard beef, standard pork, curry beef, and curry pork. Served on toasted, sliced baguettes, these sandwiches are filled with reasonable portions of meat, carrots, cucumber, cilantro, jalapenos, and onions, with the standard versions possessing the same sweet, grilled flavors of the meats found in dishes such as Bun, while the curried versions were spicy and especially delicious, lacking the small squirts of mayo we found in the plain meat versions. It's hard to find Banh Mi anywhere else in the area, and the fact that these are so genuinely good makes 99's versions a local highlight.
Other menu items ranged from okay to good. A plate of four Korean-style BBQ Beef Short Ribs ($2.25) was reasonably priced and enjoyed by a couple of us, while an unfried Fresh Vegetable Spring Roll ($1.65) and fried Vietnamese Egg Roll ($1.65) were each served as single, unusually long appetizers rather than as multiple small rolls per plate, accompanied with decent sauces but not much else. The unfried roll was, as promised, very fresh, stuffed with vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, and lettuce, while the Egg Roll was stuffed with a mystery grey meat - probably pork - and minced vegetables. We didn't have any complaints or see either of the items as a standout. A "Pork BBQ on Stick" ($2.25) was a single small sausage-sized piece of grilled meat, and didn't register much on the recipient's "wow" scale; nor did his large-sized Grill Boneless Chicken entree ($8.75), which was described as good, though typically fatty.
The meal's only real disappointment was the Bun, a Vietnamese noodle dish served almost universally with thin white rice vermicelli noodles, shredded cucumber, carrots, ground peanuts, and lettuce - then your choice of meats. Here, you can pick between pork, an egg roll, shrimp, a combination thereof, or either beef or beef brisket, most of which are available in small (~$6.25), large (~$8.25) or XL/extra-large (~$10.25) sizes. Traditionally, Bun is served with its meats marinated and grilled to the point of caramelization, plus a bowl of sweet, tangy and slightly spicy Nuoc Cham sauce on the side to mix in as an orange-colored moistener for all the rice. Not at 99 Fast Food: our shrimp arrived under-grilled and light on flavor, with the typically uncontroversial Nuoc Cham possessing far too much sweetness and none of the depth it typically acquires from lime juice, fish sauce, and chile pepper. Because the ingredients were all fresh, we made it through most of the bowl, but due mainly to the sauce, we didn't feel like finishing it.
All in all, 99 Fast Food Restaurant isn't a superstar Vietnamese restaurant, but by the standards of the many places we've visited over the years, it's not one that we'd steer people away from, either. Though a little weak on broth, the Pho comes in reasonable portions, the appetizers may be sold solo but aren't expensive, and the other entrees are likely to satisfy, if not thrill; the Banh Mi is locally unique and on the very good side of the scale. Apart from the Bun, which was plenty fresh but not quite right in the sauce or grilling, and the deteriorating neighborhood, we'd call this a fine place to visit given its pricing and menu options; located elsewhere, it would likely do even better.