Pho fighters

Don't expect to drink here, because there's no beer or wine. Though there is, kinda. Bihn Mihn Market next door sells both, and they opened the place up for us one night, drawing back the steel gate barricading the doors so I could get a sixer of Tsingtao (Chinese brew). The market and Pho Kim restaurant must have familial links: The beer mysteriously showed up on my check.

Yet you don't have to hit the market. Pho Kim has drinks including "lemon juice," a tall glass of chokingly sweet fluid with a lime wedge, and a coffee concoction of strong brew that you mix with sweet condensed milk in a tall glass of ice.

But these are minor details, very minor. Filling a clean strip-mall divot in a place called Binh Duong Center, Pho Kim Vietnamese restaurant is filled with red vinyl chairs, green marbled Formica tables, and way too much pink. In a tiny, illuminated red nook in the bottom of the service counter sits a squatting Buddha.

Pho is a little like Buddha: It invites nourishing contemplation. A Vietnamese beef broth soup, pho is often described as the national dish of Vietnam. And it's a mind-clearing tonic steeped in ritual, a thing often served for breakfast. Pho is an arduous, effortful thing created by simmering meat and bones for roughly eight hours to extract soothing richness. To this are added long rice noodle strands, meat, scallions, and herbs.

There's an associated wimp factor here too. Pho is usually floated with cuts of beef such as brisket, eye of round, flank steak, and meatballs. But you can also add gelatinous and chewy soft tendon, often a piece of knuckle, bible tripe, or a piece of ox stomach. These things purportedly add richness to the soup, allowing, as one writer put it, "a slick of tasty fat, a most desirable sensation."

I wouldn't know. I had my pho with eye of round steak sans guts.

The wide, steaming bowl arrives with a plate piled with knots of bean sprouts, Asian basil, a lime wedge, and tiny slices of green chilies that look like mag wheels. A paper napkin-bound bundle holding chopsticks and a small, ladle-like soup spoon is plopped next to the bowl. The pho fest begins by loading some of the bean sprouts and basil sprigs into the bowl and shooting it with a squeeze of lime. Holding the chopsticks in one hand and the spoon in the other, the sticks are plunged into the soup and used to lift the noodles over the sprouts and leaves to blanch them. Then, you can either pinch a neat little bundle of noodles with the chopsticks into the spoon, or slurp them into your mouth using the chopsticks while holding the spoon under the strands to keep splashes from vandalizing your attire.

Pho Kim's pho ($4.50) is delicious: freshly light and perfumy with tender, separate noodles and chewy sheets of beef. Other soups were nearly as enjoyable. Mi do bien ($4.95), a seafood medley with thick tangles of thin, tender egg noodles, was richened not with tripe or tendon but with little bits of fried pork rind that floated in the broth like sawmill fragments. Rings of scallion and lemongrass cleanly rounded the flavors.

Thick, supple imperial spring rolls ($2.00) were tasty as well, with tender strips of pork and slices of sweet, briny shrimp bandaged to a core of rice, cilantro, lettuce, and carrot by a sheet of rice paper. A dish of thick, rich peanut sauce served as dip.

The rest of the menu barely scaled the pho pedestal. Steamed rice dishes ($4.95-$6.50) featured wads of hard, sticky grains, though one dish with pork chop had thin slices of juicy, savory meat shellacked in a dark, sweet sauce, while a rendition with spicy chicken and lemon grass was succulently delicious. Vermicelli bowls, with a choice of chicken, beef, pork or seafood ($4.50-$7.99), were plagued with wads of noodles clumped over fragments of browning head lettuce mingled with sliced cucumber.

But there's no need to venture beyond pho. The list of combinations is long, and each can be had with tendon and tripe. If you get bored.


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