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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fine for all

Generally, if a restaurant’s name starts with "pho," that’s what you ought to have: pho, the beef-noodle soup of Hanoi. Reputedly named after the French pot-au-feu, the soup moved to Saigon with Catholic refugees in 1954 and then came to America with the first wave of South Vietnamese refugees in 1975.

Author Calvin Trillin had a wonderful vision of a ’50s white GI on liberty, nervously following an African-American buddy past the grimy entrance to a certain barbecue joint in Kansas City. The GI is rewarded for his liberal attitude when (hesitantly, dubiously — with common sense overcome by common decency) he reaches the counter of the greatest restaurant in the world. That’s sort of what happened to me when I hesitantly followed my convictions about ethnic dining up the steps into that first tiny storefront on Stuart Street and looked over a menu consisting entirely of soups with various choices of spare parts: tendon, tripe, flank. I remember giving up on choosing and deciding to go for the giant combination, then as now spelled "pho dac biet" with a forest of accents on almost every vowel. It probably cost $3.50. The waiter smiled at me, and I wondered how, if it was really horrible, I would manage to eat the whole thing so as not to insult anyone. I imagined something heavy and scented with tripe; maybe I could get it down with enough hot sauce. Then they brought out this very large bowl of soup, with a whole salad of bean sprouts and basil on another plate. Well, I thought, I can always eat the salad. The soup was full of meat and noodles, with bits of green cilantro and scallions floating on top.

With the first taste, I had a realization like that of Trillin’s GI: I was sitting before the best bowl of soup I’d ever had. I remember I ate the entire bowl and all the salad mixed in, but forgot to add the lime or hot sauce until the end. I’ve since had pho in Dorchester, Revere, Brighton, and Toronto — and it’s never let me down.

Sure enough, the pho dac biet ($5.25; extra-large, $5.75; small, $4.75) at Pho Vietnam is true to the breed, but has its own character. The broth is suitably light, but puts the beef forward, with the spice (star anise) at a lower pitch. The dreaded tripe is light, feathery white stuff, cut into long strips, with more of a crunchy texture than any kind of flavor. A thin slice of rare steak tastes like roast beef. Slices of well-done brisket have an earthier beef flavor with a little fat. Slices of cooked beef round have a leaner and blander meatiness. The off-putting item for some is "tendon," gristle cut thin enough to crunch. Again, this provides texture; it’s the gelatinous quality the best Anglo-American beef soups dissolve into the stock. Pho has a lighter body, and you get all the gelatin in a few bites. Some very fancy chefs have done platters like a rare duck breast with a confit duck leg — two contrasting treatments of the same animal. A good pho does the same thing, but with five flavors of beef at one-fifth the price! And then there are the aromatics. The broth features different tastes depending on where you put in the spoon. One spoonful has cilantro, another scallion, a third the long shreds of white onion. Pho Vietnam was out of anise basil my day, but usually has it. That salad stuff on the side is bean sprouts for crunch in selected spoonfuls. There is an eighth of a lime to add zip, hot sauce and hoisin for another kind of zip, and a single, thin green chili pepper that I recommend avoiding. (Technique for eating Asian noodle soups: chopsticks in your best hand, used to load solids into the spoon in your other hand. To add hoisin, make a little puddle on the plate and dip your chopsticks in it. That flavors your next spoonful of noodles.)

I try to check one variant soup at each stop. Here I can report that the crabmeat with vermicelli soup ($4.75/5.50) is quite good, a lighter broth than the pho, drawing accents from the real crabmeat dumplings and the phony-crab chunks. This is quite a spicy soup, by the way.
Pho Vietnam also has non-soup, and some very fine non-soup. Some people might not order pho, opting instead for the amazing grilled squid with spicy lemongrass. These squid pieces are diamond-cut to show "dragon scales," with a spicy marinade and a strong taste of the fire, and yet are still tender enough to chew. A lot of famous Asian-fusion chefs within a few blocks of Pho Vietnam would trade significant parts of their anatomy to be able to make squid like this. The dip, a red-pepper sauce with seeds, is so hot that the layer of ground black pepper on top seems to cool off your mouth. I also liked "Beef wrapped in Hawalian ‘Lot Leaf’" ($4.95) even though I have no idea where Hawal is. The sour leaf makes a nice contrast in little rolls of beef with a dip of sweet-sour fish sauce. The Vietnamese egg roll ($3.75) is genuinely down to cigar diameter, which means super crunch and some grease.

The menu seems to consist mostly of "Chef’s Suggestions" and "Chef’s Specialties of Vietnam Rural." Of the former, curry shrimp ($8.50) is not what you might expect, but rather a Thai-style red curry that burns awfully well. Of the latter, "My Thuan Salmon" ($8.95) is a nice enough filet, with real jasmine rice and a lovely sauté of Chinese broccoli and spinach. "Seafood Hot Pot" ($14.95/18.95) is one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, and therefore even the small one is too large to eat. The server brings out a canned-heat burner warming a lemony broth with some seafood, straw mushrooms, and corn in it, and then two more plates of ingredients to put in. If two or three of you decide to eat this, remember to save room for the broth at the end, by which time it is amazingly good. But you will have to go easy on the rice noodles, the zucchini, the broccoli, the two kinds of fish loaf, and maybe even the shrimp. That leaves you about two pots full of the really good stuff: squid sticks, shrimp, Chinese broccoli, cilantro — okay, maybe just a little rice vermicelli. The only problem with this dish is that the canned-heat fumes are unpleasant, and it takes a little while to get up enough heat to boil the broth. I would suggest the electric hot plates or propane units used in the better Korean restaurants.

If you’re not into Asian desserts, you can still persuade the staff to give you a delicious avocado shake or simple fruit in syrup. If you like Asian desserts, you’ll dig right in to the seaweed-mung-bean-shaved-ice parfaits. Send me your review as a letter to the editor. I agree in advance to believe you and not to double-check.

Pho Vietnam has adequate service and essentially no décor or atmosphere at all. Most of you would never walk in if you didn’t read this column — and that’s why you do.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at

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