Seven meaty courses at Pho Linh
Across Central Avenue from the hole in the ground formerly known as Fujiyama Japanese Restaurant (RIP) is a well-established Vietnamese eatery, Pho Linh. It has kind of a spooky ambiance, which isn’t helped by the fact that it’s physically attached to the Desert Sands Motel, where scenes from the movie No Country for Old Men were filmed. Rumor has it the sheets haven’t been changed since, and not out of posterity.
The restaurant’s dark dining room is often empty, aside from the incongruously clean and bright fish tank. The hostess beckons you with piercing eyes, and the cook stands in the kitchen door, regarding you with curiosity. Don’t run away.
Pho Linh serves Vietnamese food for Vietnamese. The specials are written on a board in Vietnamese only. A minority of the staff seem to speak English.
If it’s busy, and the customers are demanding, the hostess might neglect you. Internet reviews of Pho Linh are rabid with complaints about the service. It’s aloof, slow, infrequent, without feeling, etc. But rare is the complaint about the food, which is praised even by diners who felt totally dissed. I’ve never been neglected at Pho Linh, but I believe it could happen.
Just because a Vietnamese restaurant has “pho” in its name doesn’t mean the pho has to be good. Pho Linh’s pho is solid, with a sweet, fragrant, peppery and confident broth that isn’t greasy—although the brisket floating in mine had succulent chunks of fat attached. The side salads are small, but always fresh; I’ve never seen a brown sprout at Pho Linh.
The seven courses of beef, a meal that Pho Linh perennially shouts out on its outdoor signboard, is a specialty of the house. Some friends and I recently sat down to give it a try, and luckily it was a slow night, so for a time we had the hostess to ourselves.
First came the grilled spheroids: beef strips folded around pickled leeks and grape leaf-wrapped aromatic ground beef balls. These morsels were long dispatched by the time the hostess returned with a full spread of DIY spring roll materials, including a bag of rice paper wrappers straight off the shelf and a magnificent platter of veggies to stuff as well—including lettuce leaves, sprouts, basil, mint, shreds of pickled carrot and daikon radish, sliced cucumbers and jalapeños. The menu says green apple slices, too, but I didn’t see any.
The restaurant’s dark dining room is often empty, aside from the incongruously clean and bright fish tank. The hostess beckons you with piercing eyes, and the cook stands in the kitchen door, regarding you with curiosity. But don’t run away.
When these tools were ready, thin slices of raw beef were immersed in bubbling oil with lemongrass and shallots on a tabletop stove. It’s called beef fondue, and the hostess demonstrated how to roll our own spring rolls by dipping the rice paper in a bowl of water and filling it like a burrito with beef and fixings.
“Watch out for these,” she said of the jalapeño peppers, as she proceeded to load them into a roll destined for my friend Rob. It looked so beautiful we all asked her for rolls. We were soon choking on the jalapeños the hostess had warned us about.
More beefy fillings were presented, including five-spice beef slices that were fried in butter on an inside-out wok-type thing that sat atop our stove. Every time she had a moment, the hostess would come to our table and roll us a few more spring rolls with whatever beef was cooking.
One course—lime beef with mint, herbs and ground peanuts—is often consumed uncooked, she said, but it could also be cooked on our table-top stove if we couldn’t hang. We hung, not even bothering with the spring rolls for this course. We just nibbled down pink roses of raw, seasoned beef. It was like Vietnamese tartar.
The plate of cold lemongrass meatballs on fish crackers that came next was not my favorite. The meat was a bit congealed, and the crackers were clearly from a bag. But it was the only one of the seven courses that was not my favorite while I was eating it.
The final course was congee, made of rice that’s cooked in water into a runny porridge and served with ground beef, ginger and green onions. It was a humble note to end on after all of that beefy excess.
We also had a plate of fried whole tilapia with ginger sauce. The fish was crispy, golden-skinned and full of delicious white flesh as we’d hoped. But what elevated the dish to greatness was the ginger sauce it came with, strong and penetrating. Each time that sauce went in my mouth, I said, “Holy shit that’s good.”
Almost every dish seemed to contain some endearing homemade extra, like the ginger sauce, that helped it overachieve.
The fried squid came with a dish of thick, sweet orange mayo, colored and flavored with fresh squeezed orange juice, glasses of which are on the drink menu. The squid was sliced into thin strips, which, when coated with the spectacular citrusy mayo, were delicious and complete.
In the #67, combination cold vermicelli noodles, the special touch was the tofu shrimp “dumpling,” which looked more like tempeh strips than a dumpling. Slices of this dumpling, which had a toothy, subtle texture and a clean but complex flavor, were tossed in cold rice noodles with a greasy smorgasbord of chopped egg rolls, shrimp, many types of pork and an uninhibited quantity of the nuoc cham, that ubiquitous sweet fishy clear Vietnamese sauce.
As the night got busier, the hostess had less and less time for us. But we had gotten off to a good start and were fine navigating this alien foodscape on our own. Next time, even on a busy night, we’d be fine.
9100 Central Ave SE
Hours: 10am-9pm Tuesday-Sunday