Excerpt from Newspaper reviews
by John Hinterberger, Times restaurant critic
If Brillat-Savarin was right -- and he usually was -- pho is me. Jean Anthelme Brillan-Savarin, philosopher, essayist, gastronome and the author of the first attempt at a definitive classification of French food, wrote (in 1801) "The Physiology of Taste." In it, he coined the expression, "You are what you eat."
Actually, what he really said was, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are."
I'm a pho.
For the past couple of weeks I have been sipping and slurping at a small Vietnamese restaurant down in Rainier Valley, the Pho Hoa. Pho, which basically is a series of variations on beef noodle soup, has been described as the national dish of Vietnam.
The Pho Hoa is located in what was once a chain fried-chicken coop, which is oddly appropriate. For the Pho Hoa, too, is part of a chain -- one of 11 restaurants linked in a Vietnamese-American corporation centered primarily in California, but with outlets as far flung as Montreal and New Orleans.
They sell soup. And they sell only soup. But before you conjure up images of gaunt Asians lined up for soup kitchen simplicity, be advised that pho is to soup what filet mignon is to meat. The Seattle branch has been in business for two years, managed by Tan Duy Dao, a native of Saigon.
I first heard about it several months ago when a young Chinese woman called between mouthfuls of wonder.
"They are so busy," she said. "that they don't even serve the spoons and chopsticks. They are already on the tables in racks."
Indeed they are. But regardless of how large the crowd or the time of day (the bill of fare is the same from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.), service is not only congenial and prompt, it is almost instantaneous.
You order from one of 17 soup choices (from $3 to $3.75) and within two or three minutes, a massive bowl of beef broth and noodles arrives with what looks like a salad of bean sprouts, sliced green chills, Asian basil and lemon or lime wedges.
Warning. Do not eat the salad. At least not by itself. It is intended to be added to the soup along with the other beef cuts you have ordered.
For example, Dac Biet (S3.50) is topped with slices of rare steak, well-done brisket and flank steak; tendon and tripe. Pho Bo Vien (S3.25) has the basic broth and rice noodles with quartered meatballs.
All of the soups are garnished with sliced green onions, herbs and touches of fresh coriander. When they first arrive -- great steaming bowls of what looks like more than two could consume -- the aroma alone is enough to chase winter from the soul.
The first 10 choices on the menu all include tripe, which, Tan Duy Dao said, is preferred by most Vietnamese. The final seven offerings all have assorted slices of beet -- rare and/or well done -- but no tripe. These, he added with a smile, were what most Americans preferred.
Another unusual ingredient common to many of the bowls of pho is described in the menu as "tendon." You do not get, however, a rope of ligament or a cable of heel. Instead, what looks like a slivered cross section of knee knuckle augments the other forms of protein. It is gelatinous, tastier than one might expect, and pure hell to grasp in a chopstick. I squeezed down with the white plastic sticks once and shot mine across four tables.
In addition to 17 soups, the Pho Hoa features 17 beverages, few of which -- except for various pops and orange juice -- you have ever heard of. But for openers you might try Salty Plum Soda for a mere $1; or Ca Phe Sua Da, a kind of iced French espresso combined with what looks and tastes like Eagle Brand evaporated milk. It's surprisingly good, especially after inadvertently biting into a green chili.
Neither beer nor wine is served, but Dried Longan in Iced Light Syrup costs only $1.1O, and I am told hits the spot.
The Pho Bo Vlen ($3.25), the above-mentioned quartered meatballs, are less challenging to the uninitiated who may balk at cross-sectioned bovine joints and intestinal snips. The meatballs, judging from their chopped-up solid geometry, are dense, spicy and must originally have been the size and specific gravity of a regulation baseball. And lest you think I am throwing you a culinary curveball, they are very good.
No desserts, just or otherwise, but the French espresso and Eagle Brand comes close. It's a nice place to refresh the spirit after a day of holiday shopping. Pho Hoa ho.