Pho Bang Restaurant, 1702 West Camelback Road, Suite 14, 602-433-9440. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Our host, Lee, has brought my dining buddy the wrong soup, and he knows it. Yet, he's grinning from ear to ear, and when we mention the error, his smile grows brighter. "Yes, I know," he cheerfully agrees.
But this isn't what he ordered, points out my companion, waving weakly at his bowl brimming with beef tendon, beef navel and omosa (tripe, or ox stomach). He asked for Tai Gau instead, a rich noodle broth stocked simply with fresh eye of round and brisket.
Right again, confirms Lee, still beaming, his five-foot-five frame bent hospitably over my buddy's chair. It seems he's delighted we've noticed.
For once in his life, my dining companion is stumped. Here is a man who negotiates high-dollar contracts for a living, decides legal issues and brings used-car dealers to their knees just for fun. Now, his voice trembles slightly at he looks at his bowl and asks hopefully, "Can you fix it?"
Suddenly, Lee springs into action. Chopsticks appear from nowhere, and with dazzling speed, he plucks the offending body parts out of buddy's bowl and plops them in mine, the one who did order the Tai Chin Nam Gan Sach with its interesting variety of cow bits. Now, I have a bowl overflowing with bovine oddities, and my dining pal has barely an ounce of brisket. After further cajoling, Lee goes to the kitchen and returns with a saucer filled with beef, which he dumps into my buddy's soup. There.
And my dining pal, who once, without blinking, informed a priest he would not honor a contract signed by his employer because the man of God didn't have enough money to sue, smiles shyly and eats his soup.
The weirdest part is that we wouldn't have it any other way. Indeed, jaw-dropping service is one of the charms of Pho Bang, a popular Vietnamese restaurant in west Phoenix's emerging "little Asia" neighborhood. Such polite indifference is amusing to us, in keeping with Pho Bang's strip-mall co-tenants: Loi Phat Groceries and Videos, where you'll find untidy jumbles of canned Buddha-knows-what; and the OK Beauty Parlor (motto: You'll look OK when you leave. Not great, but OK).
No matter, the food at Pho Bang is so tasty, we'd return even if Lee dumped our meals over our heads. Actually, given that we usually have to walk behind the counter to get our own drink refills, straws, check and to-go containers, we'd probably have to dump dinner ourselves.
One of the hallmarks of Vietnamese dining is a "do-it-yourself" attitude. The more popular dishes come largely unassembled, with diners encouraged to sample, alter and enhance their dishes as they like. Besides an array of mild to maniacal hot sauces, many dishes come with Xalach Dia, a large salad of fresh herbs, greens, bean sprouts and vinegared vegetables -- all the better to dress your dinner with.
Pho -- hot soup that is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine -- is my favorite self-serve composition. Huge, steaming hot bowls of deceptively simple-looking broth arrive stocked with rice noodles and any variety of beef cuts. The broth is toe-curling good just as it is, a clear but complex blend of onion, beef bone, ginger, carrot, cinnamon and star anise that is lovingly simmered for up to 12 hours. At the table, we decorate it with splashes of sriracha (a low-burning hot sauce), crispy bean sprouts, serrano chile, squirts of lime and tears of fresh herbs. It's a spicy kick start: Lemon- and jasmine-toned basil, pungent mint and lively, almost fetid cilantro bring an earthy dimension to the soup. It's also an acquired taste, but one definitely worth achieving.
Pho Bang offers 15 varieties of Pho ($3.75-$4.50), all varying combinations of miscellaneous beef tidbits, plus meatball. After experimenting, we stick to traditional eye of round, brisket and/or flank. Tripe, after all, is squishy and tasteless. Rubbery sheets of tendon are scratchy like a cat tongue. Navel doesn't even look like one, but like chewy, flat tar paper, while sliced meatballs remind me of Vietnamese Spam, with an annoying Styrofoam texture and very little seasoning.
But the beef! Simple beauty, it is, served "fresh" (the best) or well-done. Fresh equates to raw, and when dunked in the scalding broth, it cooks to a tender perfection that is more flavorful than the preheated version. This is soup I crave year-round, even when it's 200 degrees in the city.
The menu at Pho Bang promises that its staff is happy to help you with your dining selections, and I suppose, in a way, they are. Lee's sidekick, Lon, is almost horrified when I break rank on one visit and order Canh Chua Ca ($6.75), catfish soup with pineapple and vegetables in a spicy lemon sauce. "Don't get that!" she shrieks. "You won't like it!" She explains that in Vietnam, people eat fish three times a day, but since she's been in America she's realized that it gives her stinky breath, and she wouldn't wish that on us. I insist; she acquiesces, but returns with her bad-breath antidote: a grapefruit the size of bowling ball. Just what I wanted for an after-dinner nibble.
In truth, the fish soup is a delight. Sure, I'm not used to seeing a sliced cross section of whole skin-on fish; when not in its traditional fillet, the meat resembles marbles held together with tiny bone. And true, the fish has a slight aftertaste of dust in the back of my throat. But the orange broth is killer -- sweet, sour, smooth, spicy and musical with the juices of chunky tomato, celery, chile and taro root. It's all served with a bowl of good white rice that's great for soaking.
First-timers understandably might choose to start more slowly. This doesn't mean I'm granting permission to cling to Pho Bang's Chinese menu, though, even if the restaurant does serve a fine beef chow mein ($5.25) and lemongrass chicken ($4.25). Instead, try Tom Va Bo Nuong Vi ($12.95), a dish that Lee repeatedly reminds us is a favorite of his pal Senator John McCain. We go for it anyway.
Tom Va is described as marinated shrimp and beef cooked on a tabletop griddle, but the experience is much greater. We're presented with a large plate circled with whisper-thin slices of lightly oiled raw beef, whole shrimp, sliced onion, chopped scallion and peanuts. On the side: more Xalach Dia; this time an array of sliced carrot, cucumber, pickled radish, whole scallion heads, mint, cilantro and lettuce. More plates deliver rice paper sheets and butter.
My dining companion immediately takes command, smearing the gas grill with butter and draping meat across its sizzling top. "Man a shrimp!" he directs me -- this stuff cooks quickly and we must be watchful of its progress. Meanwhile, I'm preparing little futons of translucent rice paper topped with fresh herbs and veggies. The meat complete, we wrap the whole thing up like a fajita and dunk it in sweet and sour fish sauce (Nuoc Mam), a better-than-it-sounds blend of garlic, sugar, lemon and au de fish floating with carrot slivers. It's a satisfying lunch for two, though hungrier folk would do well to add on some soup or a Cha Gio (spring roll -- small $3.75, large $7).
Vietnamese spring rolls are much like Chinese egg rolls, but packed with more nifty stuff. In addition to appetizers, they come perched atop Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong ($4.50), a wonderfully simple bowl of grilled pork and rice noodles. I'm a great and gluttonous fan of the crispy, slightly oily critters, packed full of ground pork, rice flour vermicelli and mushroom. Try one with a forkful of warm, tender noodles, then stir it all up in its bed of chopped peanuts, slivered cucumber and greens. Toss in a few leaves of fresh basil, dip it in Nuoc Mam, and yum! It's like an Asian chef salad with perhaps a million fewer calories.
Com Suon Nuong ($4.25) is another low-cal but filling feast. There's not a speck of fat on these crisp-edged slices of grilled pork, nesting on white rice with spirals of fresh tomato, cucumber and lettuce leaves. Dip it in chili sauce, but carefully -- this pepper-flecked red monster is hot, hot, hot.
Vietnamese-fare virgins aren't going to find much to embrace in Pho Bang's desserts iced lychees, anyone? The sweet, white nut served over snow cone ice ($2) is sugary, but in an unfamiliar, musty way. Café Sua Da ($1.50) does us just fine, thank you, a heady jolt of black chicory espresso that drips from a little brewer into a cup of condensed, sweetened milk. We order the brew at the beginning of our meal to allow proper seeping time; when it's done, we pour it over ice and sit back for a caffeinated head rush. In fact, after drinking a few of these, Lee's crazy smile makes perfect sense.
Dong Phuong Oriental, 8123 East Roosevelt Road, Scottsdale, 480-949-5251. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
There are some days that Pho craving hits, but life won't allow me the trek from Scottsdale to west Phoenix. On these unfortunate occasions, I find solace at Dong Phuong on the Scottsdale/Tempe border. It works in a pinch, but comes in a distant second to my tummy's preferred Pho Bang.
Sure, it's cleaner than soup-spattered Pho Bang. Pink walls are bordered with celery-green paper, Formica-top tables are always promptly cleared (by staff, not the customers), and it's quiet. No flying food or shrieking here, just a background melody of humming soda and ice machines. But there's a "No Credit -- Please Don't Ask" sign conspicuously plastered above the cash register. No matter how many times we visit the small store, no one says hello, goodbye or welcome back.
On the plus side, we always get what we order.
To be fair, Pho Tai Chien ($4.45) is very nice, the noodles topped with eye of round and well-done flank. Yet, the meat is served in small clumps rather than thin slices. It's already cooked, so it's lost savory broth absorption. I appreciate that the meat is fat-free -- Pho Bang is highly hit-and-miss with its trimming capability. But the soup floats with overpowering amounts of scallion and sliced onion, far outweighing the dainty portions of beef.
Pho Dac Biet Thap Cam ($5.55) combines tripe, tendon, flank, eye of round and meatballs. It's no better, but no worse, than Pho Bang's version, although one unforgivable sin occurs -- our Xalach Dia arrives sans cilantro. I prefer Mi Xa Xiu Tom ($5.15), a light broth of clear, gummy bear-textured noodles with shrimp and pork.
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While Hu Tiu Bo Kho ($4.85) translates as an uncomplicated beef stew and rice noodle soup, it's actually a little strange. There's no stew per se, just overcooked beef, veggies and Pho broth, but there's an undertone to it that's almost like stroganoff. I don't like it.
Twelve bite-size nuggets of Cha Gio ($3.65) are overly dry. We wrap their starchy, fried casings in greens and herbs and dip them in sweet sauce, which helps. A better choice is Goi Cuon ($4.55), six burrito-size rolls of rice paper stuffed with vermicelli, whole shrimp, lettuce, carrot, bean sprouts, pickles and sliced pork. The bland flavors call for an aggressive sauce, provided by garlicky hoisin studded with peanuts.
While I can make do with Dong Phuong, I'd rather get Pho Bang for my buck.
New Times restaurant critic Carey Sweet has been writing about food and dining the Valley for 10 years. Contact her at 602-744-6558 or online at email@example.com