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When I was sworn in last March as New Times restaurant critic, part of my oath of office was to share my restaurant findings with my readers. Sometimes, like this week, I do so reluctantly. At one time or another, all of you probably have "found" a little restaurant you instantly love. Week after week you stealthily return, relishing your find. You tell a few friends about it, but caution them to tell only their closest confidants. You don't want your beloved spot altered one iota. I think this instinct is natural. I remember the difficulty I had fifteen years ago, while living in Washington, D.C., in obtaining the name and address of a funky little Mexican restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. Only after I swore not to tell a soul did my co-worker give me directions to the best place for enchiladas in the Potomac Basin. The restaurant, whose name I now forget, was very small and very good, and I quickly understood why it was necessary to keep it hush-hush. If word got out, it soon would be swamped by people, including some who, undoubtedly, would be aghast at the plastic knives and forks. To keep the place exactly as it was, the way we loved it, it was important that only those who were simpatico should know about it. This is a roundabout way of saying that in writing this week's column, I run the risk of ruining one of my favorite new restaurants and changing its very chemistry. But that, in a sense, is what I get paid for.

Da Vang Restaurant is, without a doubt, the most authentic Vietnamese restaurant I've found in Phoenix. Extremely popular with the Southeast Asian community, this lace-curtained 19th Avenue "coffee shop" is always bustling with well-dressed families, pairs of businessmen and groups of young people sporting extremely cool shoes. They come here for the noodle dishes that are Da Vang's specialty, for French-filtered coffee or for any of the other 63 delicacies on its four-page menu.

They come, quite simply, because the food is so good.
During my several visits to Da Vang, I sample many selections. I've yet to find anything which isn't eye-opening. For the sake of space and time, rather than list all of the items I try, let me give you a general overview of the menu, highlighting some of its standouts.

Da Vang offers six different versions of pho, the yummy beef and rice-noodle soup which hails from the northern city of Hanoi. Pho Da Vang (#1) is a big bowl of rice noodles and paper-thin slices of beef in glistening beef broth flavored with star anise and ginger. Cilantro, green onion, tripe and some weird cartilaginous-looking things add to the soup's delicate flavoring. A plate of fresh herbs and greenery to be tossed in the soup includes slices of red and green chiles, bean sprouts, cilantro and lime. Be sure to make use of them; combining cooked and raw foods is quintessentially Vietnamese.

Hu tieu, subtitled "House Noodle Soup," originated in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The broth for this soup sometimes is served separately from the noodles, but not at Da Vang.

At Da Vang, the primary difference between Hanoi- and Saigon-style rice-noodle soups is that the latter includes both seafood and meats, while the former uses meat only--beef or sometimes chicken. Hu tieu bot gao (#9) is a generous mix of rice noodle, shrimp fritter, whole shrimp and thin-sliced pork in a cilantro-and-Chinese-chive-flavored broth. It is marred only by the substitution, the day I try it, of imitation crab for squid.

Mi, or egg noodle soup, will be familiar to anyone who knows and loves the Hong Kong-style noodle soups available at Gourmet House, the Prime, or King's. That's because the Chinese introduced this soup to the Vietnamese, who have made it their own over the years. I like mi hoanh thanh (#18), essentially won ton noodle soup, with a smoky, hot flavor. The won tons are mostly wrapper, but the shrimp and pork filling and chicken broth more than make up for it.

Bun, thin rice vermicelli, is one of my favorite Vietnamese noodle dishes. Nine varieties of bun are available at Da Vang, including two soups--which I can't wait to go back and try.

Most bun dishes, including bun thit nuong (#27), are constructed in layers. At the bottom of your bowl you'll find fresh bean sprouts, julienne cucumber, shredded lettuce and Thai basil or mint. These crunchy textures are obscured by cool rice vermicelli, which, in turn, is topped with barbecued pork, chopped roasted peanuts, cilantro and green onions. Add some nuoc cham, the amber-colored spicy-sweet sauce, and a dash or two of Sriracha, a Tabasco-like red chile condiment, toss the whole mix with your chopsticks and enjoy. It's unbeatable for lunch or breakfast: light, yet sustaining and satisfying.

 

Another dish listed in the bun section of the menu is banh hoi chao tom thit nuong (#31). This is one of the more exotic dishes I order at Da Vang. In essence, it's a do-it-yourself fresh spring-roll plate. I receive a plate of round rice papers cut into quarters, a plate of fresh herbs and greenery and a plate of cold rice vermicelli (that's right, bun), fatty barbecued pork and slices of a substance called ground shrimp, which is something like a shrimp aspic. To eat this concoction, unfurl a rice paper; line with a bit of lettuce, mint, cucumber; add the pork, some bun and ground shrimp and roll up like a miniature burrito. Dip the roll into your bowl of nuoc cham before eating. It's good, but too much for me to finish alone. A little ground shrimp goes a long way.

For those of you who like your fresh spring rolls served already prepared, you'll be happy to know that Da Vang's shrimp-and-pork goi cuon, which they call "French rolls," are quite good. They come with a sweet, thick dipping sauce made from hoisin sauce, peanuts and chile paste.

Fried spring rolls (cha gio), considered the national dish of Vietnam, also are excellent at Da Vang. Served hot and greasy, you can see and taste the pork sausage (gio) in these babies. To ensure better handling and to enhance the flavors, eat your spring rolls Vietnamese-style. Wrap them in lettuce with a leaf or two of mint, Thai basil and cilantro tucked inside, and dip in--you guessed it--the ever-present and ever-wonderful nuoc cham sauce. I love the stuff.

Part of the fun of eating at Da Vang is that it's a learning experience. I always watch to see what they'll bring out of the kitchen next. And you can be sure, if something looks particularly good, I'll ask to know what it is.

On one of the days I visit, many diners are drinking a dark green beverage dispensed from a multigallon lemonade cooler. "What is that?~" I finally ask my host. He smiles. "Green water. You want to try?" I demur, pointing to my glass of iced Vietnamese coffee.

But on a subsequent visit, my dining accomplice and I share a glass--well, we take a couple of sips. I'm afraid "green water" is an acquired taste, but it's interesting, all right.

Yes, there are steamed rice dishes on the Da Vang menu. I've been too busy indulging myself in noodle soups to try many yet. I have sampled the lemon-grass chicken (#61) and know it won't let fans down. You can actually see and taste the lemon grass, the chicken is plentiful and tender and the rice is real short-grain sticky rice. Don't dismiss the pickled, shredded carrot and daikon radish as mere decoration. They provide a delightful taste contrast.

On my most recent visit to Da Vang, the owner greets me as an almost-regular. He is happy to see I'm back. I'm in the mood for something different, so I order banh canh (#47), thinking I'll get something like banh cuon, which are steamed, rolled ravioli. Nope. It's soup again, this time with a thick, soft white noodle I've never seen before. Far from being disappointed, I'm intrigued. Good-sized shrimp, thin-sliced pork and squid float in a pleasant broth flavored with fried shallots and garlic.

After lunch, a trip next door to Loi Nam, a Vietnamese grocery run by Da Vang's owner's sister, is revelatory. There in the refrigerated section is a package of fresh rice noodles called banh tam. They are quite unusual and nothing like the dried banh pho used in Hanoi- and Saigon-style soups.

Although on a busy Saturday they could use an extra bus boy to clear tables, service at Da Vang is always prompt, sincere and courteous. To the restaurant's credit, there's none of the most-non-Asians-don't-like-that brand of protectionism you may have experienced elsewhere. If you order it, they'll bring it--so be prepared.

Finally, if a sparkling-clean environment is your primary criterion for a restaurant, Da Vang probably isn't the place for you. As is often the case at authentic ethnic restaurants, Da Vang may fall short of American standards of cleanliness. The blue cement-block walls and linoleum floor could use a good scrubbing, but things like that just don't bother me very much. I've seen a lot worse in my travels.

I guess, to quote the dreaded Billy Joel, I like Da Vang just the way it is. My only hope is that it stays the same for a long time to come. We need it.

 

Pho Dong Phuong, a tiny strip-mall restaurant serving Vietnamese and Chinese food, is another summer discovery. Actually, I noticed it last fall, but only got around to trying it recently.

I'm sorry I waited so long.
Yet another undiscovered restaurant serving very good Vietnamese fare! And best of all, for those of us who don't live on the west side of town, it's conveniently located in south Scottsdale, just a quick trip from Tempe or east Phoenix.

Unlike the sometimes steamy Da Vang, Pho Dong Phuong is efficiently air-conditioned. The eight-table restaurant is cute and clean. The restaurant does a lot of take-out business, but rest assured, if you sit down, someone will come to your table and take your order. Service is good, but not quite as eager-to-please as Da Vang. The pink menu is the one which lists the restaurant's Vietnamese options. Many customers here seem quite happy ordering chicken fried rice night after night. I can only suggest they are missing out on the best this place has to offer; though, truthfully, I haven't tried the Chinese menu. Why would I?

As at Da Vang, everything I try here is good. Honestly. Right down to the tart, fresh, homemade lemon-limeade and the French-style iced coffee (cafe sua da) with a filter that drips fast and steady.

In particular, I recommend the bun tom thit nuong cha gio (B4), a big bowl of bun, as described above, topped with shrimp and wonderful grilled pork. Or, any of the pho. I try the combination special pho (P9), which includes lovely rare beef, as well as organ meats and cartilage--which I don't feel compelled to eat. You don't have to either, unless that's your thing.

Cha gio (K1), fried spring rolls, are very nice here, as are goi cuon (K2)--fresh spring rolls. My only complaint with the latter is too-chewy rice paper the day I try them.

I love hu tiu dai (H1), a soup which features clear cellophane noodles, shrimp, sliced pork and ground meat in a delicious beefy broth. Surprisingly, I also like the mi xao mem (H3), a delightful pan-fried egg-noodle dish with lovely fresh vegetables, pork and shrimp. I'm often less impressed with dishes like this at Vietnamese restaurants.

Okay, I am a little let down by one dish. Com ga nuong chanh (C4), the charbroiled lemon chicken, isn't really what I expected. I had hoped for lemon-grass chicken, but what I get is more like teriyaki chicken without the teriyaki sauce. It's all right, but I wouldn't order it again.

Prices are a little bit higher at Pho Dong Phuong than at Da Vang, but you don't hear me complaining too much. When I need a fix of cafe sua da in the East Valley, it's nice to know I now have two places, Pho Dong Phuong and Asia Angel (formerly Lunch Angel), to go.

Only, in my version of the ideal world, I'd have ten. Someday . . . Da Vang Restaurant, 4538 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 242-3575. Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Pho Dong Phuong, 8123 East Roosevelt, Scottsdale, 949-5251. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday.

In writing this week's column, I run the risk of ruining one of my favorite new restaurants.

To the restaurant's credit, there's none of the most-non-Asians-don't-like-that brand of protectionism you may have experienced elsewhere.

Da Vang Restaurant is, without a doubt, the most authentic Vietnamese restaurant I've found in Phoenix.


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