The Incredible Adventures of Gourmet Gal

Thursday, October 19, 2006




No?! Then your bowl is in for a treat.

Pho is like the other, other beef noodle soup for the Vietnamese. In America, they are generally big bowls of aromatic soup containing slightly chewy rice noodles and various types of beef (raw, cooked, flank, eye of round, brisket, etc.). The order also comes with a handful of fresh bean sprouts, springs of Asian/Thai basil with mint, and wedges of lemon on the side to add crunchy texture, luscious fragrance, and acidic excitement to the whole shibam. I was told that the real authentic pho in Vietnam is much simpler than the ones we get in America; just noodle, slices of beef, and savory broth. After all, pho is considered more of a breakfast food or snack than a main course in its native land.

For me, the key to a successful bowl of pho is the soup base. It has to be piping hot and intensely flavored with a lingering hint of sweetness. I always take a sip of the natural broth (sans herbs and lemon juice) as soon as my bowl is brought onto the table. The first impression is everything. One sip determines the fate of the pho.

Then, I like to place the bean sprouts and the herbs in the bowl, and burry them along with any raw slices of beef under the noodles. The heat from the soup will further cook the raw ingredients and release the fragrance of the herbs. While waiting for this one minute process, I like to concoct my dipping sauce by mixing sweet hoisin sauce (the dark brown squeeze bottle on the table) with Vietnamese hot chilly sauce (the bright red squeeze bottle, also on the table). Then I would take a bite of the rice noodles to judge if they were au dente. Only after that, would I dip the meat of my choice ( normally the raw/ barely cooked ones first) into the dipping sauce and savor it with a smile. Mmmmm, it's time to take another spoonful of the heavenly broth.

Very Tampopo, don't you think?

Pho Bang Restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens gets a gold star for its reliably good pho. With eight branches located in NY, LA, AZ, and TX, this chain restaurant provides fresh and sumptuous Vietnamese fairs at a reasonable price. The one in Queens is a glass window-shield triangle situated on the edge of a Chinese supermarket's parking lot which is adjacent to a line of Hong Kong, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants. You can literally smell the sweet scent of basil, lemon grass, and simmering beef bone soup base permeating out of the restaurant from three blocks away.

The place was always packed. On the Monday night we were there, a line had accumulated by the door even though it was only 6:30 P.M. But the service was efficient - if not a bit brusque - we were seated within five minutes.

The appetizers featured standard American favorites such as Cha Gio (Vietnamese crispy spring rolls) and Goi Cuon (Vietnamese non-fried summer rolls). The main courses were divided into sections of Pho, Banh Hoi (angel hair noodles), Bun (rice vermicelli), and Com Dia (rice dishes). We ordered the followings:

CHA GIO (Vietnamese crispy spring rolls) $3.75 (for 4)
TAI NAM SACH (combination rice noodles, beef soup w/fresh eye of round, navel, tendon and omosa) $4.35 (regular bowl)
COM SUON NUONG (grilled pork chop on rice) $4.25
RAU MUONG ZAO TOI (Chinese watercress with garlic) $6.25

The deep fried Vietnamese egg rolls were satisfying with a mouthful of crispy rice paper and a mixture of pork, chicken, crabmeat, black mushroom & clear noodles. I loved to wrap them inside lettuce leaves with a sprig of mint, and dip the fat bundle into the sugary vinegar sauce. The result was a happy marriage of hot and cool, savory and sweet.

J's grilled pork chops arrived glistening with fresh grilled marks and faintly charred edges - all signs of a great barbeque. The lemon grass and fish sauce mixture, which the pork chops were marinated in produced such a deep layer of sultry tang that I couldn't help but gnaw on the bones like an eager puppy.

The Chinese watercress sautéed with garlic was prolific but not excellent. It was a little under seasoned - perhaps more salt, or even better, if some shrimp paste was added. Shrimp paste for the South East Asians is like anchovy paste for the Italians. The fermented pink paste has a potently pungent scent - I'm talking about the smell of rotten fish mixed with soiled blue cheese. A simple teaspoon mixed into sautéed Chinese watercress would yield such a sumptuously robust taste, that it's totally worth having a jar in your kitchen and drive everyone in the house insane.

The dessert menu showed the French colonial influence on Vietnamese cuisine, from Ca Phe Sua Nong (espresso special filter condensed milk coffee) and Soda Sua Hot Ga (soda with egg york and condensed milk) to Nhan Nhuc (dried longan in syrup served with ice) and Soda Xi Muoi (salty plum soda). I opted for:

CHE BA MAU (three colors sweet beans, jelly mung beans & coconut milk, served with ice) $1.75

It arrived in a see-through glass with red, green, white - three colors of zig-zag-edged small strips of jellies - and sweet read beans, mung beans puree with dense coconut milk. What a cheerful sight! I slurred the mixture happily while J wrinkled his nose. "No thank you," He shook his head before I even thought about offering him some. I loved it. It was milky and sugary - just what I liked after a toothsome meal.

As we looked around, almost every table had ordered a bowl of pho - something that J had a hard time understanding. He thinks that the only time a person should craze for hot soup is either when they are not feeling well, or it's freezing cold outside. Apart from the practical reasons for pho's existence in Vietnam - that the weather is always scorching hot, it is important to have sufficient water and salt intake - I think it is just plain and simple why everyone's addicted to pho, IT TASTES GOOD! And until the day J achieves this enlightment, Gourmet Gal's incredible adventures shall continue.


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