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HANOI AND HER SIZZLERS

Here's a concept that signals the beginning of a new decade. A Vietnamese restaurant that is a) part of an international chain, b) pleasant and attractive, c) authentic. Pho Bang Restaurant, for those of you who haven't yet tried it, is all of the above. It is sparkling clean. It is well-managed. It boasts a cheerful staff that is eager to please. It has sister stores in New York, Houston, New Orleans and Taipei. Best of all, it serves excellent, authentic Vietnamese cuisine.

Located on West Camelback at the former Tu Do II location, the restaurant has been remodeled. It now boasts a red-and-white linoleum-tiled floor and blush-tinged walls. Since opening in early August, Pho Bang has been immensely popular with the Vietnamese community. Non-Asian customers are still the exception, but as word gets out, I predict this will change.

Pho Bang's professionalism is readily apparent at every turn. The menu is concise compared to those at some "authentic" Vietnamese restaurants, even though it lists 79 food items, 26 beverages (including imported and domestic beer and wine) and 3 desserts. It has been distilled to contain only the tried and true--dishes with known appeal to Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese customers alike.

That said, do not get the wrong idea. This is not a menu that has been watered down for American tastes. Rest assured, this is the real stuff: bun (cold rice vermicelli), pho (beef-and-rice-noodle soup), mi xao (egg noodles), bo (beef dishes). There is just enough usual and exotic fare to please both novices and experts in Vietnamese cuisine.

Hot and sour fish soup in a fire pot (#79) is probably the most challenging dish I sample. It is wonderful--reminiscent of both Thai and Chinese soups, but unlike anything I've ever tasted. Catfish is the fish in question, hacked into pieces, complete with bones and skin. Other ingredients include quartered fresh tomatoes, stalks of baby celery, Thai basil, bean sprouts and pineapple. The result is a light and sweet soup, flavored, but not overpowered, by the slightly musky taste of the catfish. With rice, it could easily serve as a satisfying meal for two.

But why stop with soup, when so much else entices? The table-grilled shrimp and beef (#35) is highly recommended, in part because Pho Bang's staff makes what is often a real production into a civilized experience.

Here's the drill. A gas-powered grill is delivered to your table. Swirl a spoonful or two of melted butter onto it. Select halved raw shrimp or rare beef slices and, with your chopsticks, place them on the grill where they'll sizzle-cook in no time. To eat, peel a triangle of rice paper from the pile, add lettuce, mint, cilantro or cucumber, some beef or shrimp, roll the whole thing up and dip into nuoc cham. Voila. C'est fini. C'est magnifique. (The French are very big on Vietnamese cuisine. They spent more time there than we did, under more peaceful conditions.)

Beef lovers will also not want to miss the sauteed beef cubes with salad (#31). There's nothing scary about this one. It is simply cubes of beef and grilled onion, served sizzling on an iron-skillet platter. A leaf lettuce, tomato-and-onion salad marinated with a rice-vinegar dressing and wedges of lime arrive on the side. Squeeze some lime into a little sauce dish, add a shake of salt and pepper, then use this as a dipping sauce for the beef cubes. Snag some lettuce or a piece of tomato with your chopsticks and eat it with the beef. Zowie, that's good. In the less-exotic offerings, Pho Bang scores equally high. I would recommend any of the bun dishes (#7 through #10), but then, I always do, for this cold-noodle-and-salad meal for one never ceases to charm. In particular, I recommend the bun cha gio thit nuong (#10), which features bits of grilled pork and chopped spring rolls atop cold rice vermicelli atop a layer of cucumber and lettuce. Pour the "special sauce," a.k.a. nuoc cham, over the whole mixture, toss with your chopsticks and eat.

You can definitely go with the pho here. Pho Bang serves 15 different variations of Hanoi-style rice-noodle soup. I confess I'm stuck on #24, pho tai, which is simply thin-sliced beef and rice noodles in a glistening fragrant broth. If you like your beef pink, ask for it on the side. Your server will bring you a plate of rare beef slices which you cook to proper pinkness by placing into your hot soup. Pho is fantastic this way. Toss in bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, fresh basil and a squeeze of lime and you're all set to slurp on this any-time-of-day meal. Other familiar dishes will also please your palate. Chicken with lemon grass is nicely spiced and, with rice, the perfect portion for one. Be sure to order another dish if you plan to share. Taquitolike cha gio (fried spring or "imperial" rolls), delicate goi cuon (unfried rice-paper rolls containing shrimp) and crisp and peanuty goi tom (marinated shrimp salad with raw vegetables) are all excellent.

In fact, the only dish I'm not too wild about is a soft egg-noodle dish with vegetables and assorted meats (#41). It lacks the zest of the Chinese version of this dish and, as such, is just too bland to make much impact on my taste buds.

The service at Pho Bang is fast, efficient and friendly. English is spoken and "how-to" instructions are happily given. I learn something new on every visit to this attractive restaurant.

Far East franchises are nothing new. The Japanese have been doing it for years. But a Vietnamese chain that outshines most of the locals? Now that's news.

A different type of Far East experience is offered at YC's Mongolian Barbecue. Whereas Asians abound at Pho Bang, here the Anglos rule. That's because YC's speaks the international language of value, convenience and nutrition. At dinner, when YC's goes All-U-Can-Eat, you hear the universal language of gluttony.

Welcome to the Sizzler of the Orient. The line forms to the right.
You pay first. Then you grab a big pasta-size bowl, place it on your tray and survey the buffet. Imagine a salad bar where, when you get to the end, they cook what you've placed in your bowl and you've got the idea. It may sound odd, but it doesn't take long to catch on.

First up are the meats--frozen, thin-cut slices of beef, pork, chicken and turkey. Put some in the bottom of your bowl or don't--it's possible to enjoy a good vegetarian meal here.

Next up are the veggies--leaves of dark-green spinach, bean sprouts, shredded Chinese and regular cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, white onions, scallions, zucchini. There are even egg noodles--which I highly recommend--so don't forget to leave some room for them.

Push your tray bearing that obscenely full bowl over to the sauces. Yes, it's just like dressings at a salad bar--with a difference. This is much more scientific. You're looking to add about six ladles of sauce to your veggie/meat/noodle mix.

Choose from sweet and sour, wine, sesame oil, garlic, lemon, ginger, seafood or YC's own special sauce.

Now it's time to cook. Pass your bowl to the chef behind the counter. Watch as he throws your hand-selected ingredients onto the big metal drum-grill. Round and round he walks, tossing, stirring and slapping your dinner with a giant pair of chopsticks. In seconds, he is done. Your meal is scooped into a clean bowl and returned to you. Now all you do is eat.

It's so simple. And tasty. Don't like your particular combination of ingredients or sauces? Alter it next time around. Experiment until you find exactly the right formula for success.

The cost for lunch (one bowl only, gang) is $3.95. Dinner is $6.95, and that's for all you can eat. For this price, at both meals, you also receive a beverage, fried rice, soup and Chinese bread. Unfortunately, I found these last three items to be very bland during my multiple visits.

Still, I like the concept of YC's Mongolian Barbecue, and from the looks of the crowds here, so do others. The clean pastel-hued atmosphere is strictly fast food, but if the food is fast, it is also nutritious and good. This is "eating smart" incarnate.

Pho Bang Restaurant, 1702 West Camelback, #14, Phoenix, 433-9440. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

YC's Mongolian Barbecue, 3206 South McClintock, Tempe, 820-8880. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

MDBUpho bang

This is not a menu that has been watered down for American tastes. Rest assured, this is the real stuff.

Pho Bang's staff makes what is often a real production into a civilized experience.

MDBUyc's mongolian

YC's speaks the international language of value, convenience and nutrition.

Imagine a salad bar where, when you get to the end, they cook what you've placed in your bowl and you've got the idea.

If the food is fast, it is also nutritious and good. This is "eating smart" incarnate.

I.O.U. ONE, GOVERNOR... v9-25-91


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