Here's the Beef
Pho #1 Vietnamese Cuisine & Grill
By Scott Sharot
From the moment we walked into Pho #1 Cuisine & Grill, we were made to feel very much at home. Our waitress, with genuine warmth and an open, friendly smile, greeted us at the door. We were seated at a large table graced with silk flowers and a Lazy Susan with soupspoons, chopsticks and condiments. Décor is minimal--powder blue walls, brown latticework covered with climbing pathos plants and a few framed pictures. Nothing fancy, but not to worry; it's all about the beef.
After only a short time at our table, I heard the sound of waves breaking and seagulls squawking. I turned around in wonderment. It was like I was having an acid flashback to 1970 on Waikiki Beach. There on the wall in lurid, vibrating color was Diamond Head with clouds moving, seagulls flying, waves rippling. My wife pointed out that our waitress had just flicked the switch on the artwork behind us and, in fact, I was not hallucinating.
We began our meal with fresh summer rolls ($3). These tasty babies were tightly packed in paper-thin rice wrappers and filled with lots of rice noodles, ground pork, lettuce and delicious, spicy Thai basil. You may also order a vegetarian version with tofu ($2.50). The peanut dipping sauce served on the side was particularly tasty.
Beef is the most prominent protein on this menu, but there are also many chicken, pork and seafood dishes to choose from, and even 16 vegetarian entrées to boot.
Pho (pronounced fo) is considered the most popular dish in Vietnamese cuisine and is eaten both day and night in Vietnam. With just cause, since it's truly a meal in itself. Pho is typically made with beef stock and sliced beef, but you may also get it with chicken. It's flavored with spices like ginger, star anise and scallions, and includes rice noodles and beef or chicken. I ordered Pho number 38 on this menu, the saté beef noodle soup ($6.35). It's the priciest of the 19 pho choices, but worth the extra money. It came in a gigantic white bowl filled with steamy, spicy beef broth with thinly sliced, rare beef, tender tripe, chewy beef tendon and well-done flank steak. I must admit that even this rare-beef-loving carnivore found that the well-done flank worked in the dish. It actually added a deep, beefy base note to the soup. Also included were lean, tight, beef meatballs that had been sliced, soft rice noodles and a few sweet slices of almost ripe tomato. Garnishes included a pile of Thai basil (which has more of an anise accent than regular basil), mung bean sprouts and a few slices of hot peppers (if you dare). This version of Vietnam's national dish is definitely a contender for the No. 1 Pho in town.
The curry chicken ($7.95) was short on chicken but well seasoned and not too spicy for my mild mannered guest. She appreciated the moderate spicing (as promised) and was quite pleased. There were lots of well-cooked vegetables accompanying the chicken, so the portion was generous. This curry is not as complex as, say, a Thai Maussman or even most East Indian curries. I'm told this one is made with a Vietnamese curry paste.
My wife thoroughly enjoyed her stir-fried flat rice noodles with seafood, No. 127 ($8.95). The noodles were perfectly cooked and the shrimp and scallops in the dish were particularly tasty.
There is no beer or wine offered but there are 26 nonalcoholic beverage selections to choose from. I highly recommend the lemonade soda. It's bubbly but not sweet (like a lady I once dated), and it's got just the right citrus twang. Iced espresso with condensed milk is another of my perennial Vietnamese favorites. Many of the fruit shakes are made with fresh, exotic fruits. Try the sour sop shake for a refreshing palate cleanser after the tongue lashing the pho delivers. It has a mound of solid, sorbet-like tropical fruit ice in the center, and the flavor is subtle with a capital “b.” The much-maligned durian is also offered in a shake. The fruit itself looks like a medieval weapon, all gnarly with spikes, and the ripe fruit exudes a natural (or unnatural) gas smell that is loathed by many. But the fruit itself is delicious. It has a creamy texture and tastes sort of like a banana pudding with a touch of butterscotch, hint of vanilla, pineapple, strawberry and almond flavors with a slight garlic twist. I'm a recovering wine snob, can you tell?
Our server recommended the three-colors drink for dessert. We couldn't resist. It was remarkably strange and surprisingly tasty. Imagine a layered drink made with red kidney beans, yellow mung beans, strips of green kanten (Asian Jell-O), coconut milk and chopped peanuts. I had a hard time with the whole beans.
I'll be returning soon to try the special seven courses of beef ($27 for two). It includes beef congee, grilled Hawaiian meatloaf, beef wrapped with pickled onion, tenderloin with onion, basil and lemon juice, steamed beef meatballs with glass noodles, and two beef dishes cooked tableside. Don't wait til you start that Atkins diet again to give this place a try. You just might discover a new obsession that includes beef.
Pho #1 Vietnamese Cuisine & Grill; 414 San Pedro SE; (505) 268-0488; Hours: Sun-Tues and Thurs-Sat 10:30 a.m-9 p.m.; Closed Wednesday; Price range: Inexpensive; Master Card and Visa accepted.
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