Lasso Me

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In case you haven't noticed, I've been burning a humongo hole in my billfold the past few weeks, eating out at all these high-dollar grubbaterias, and stacking so much credit card debt that Visa should consider taking out a life insurance policy on me. How else would the company survive the loss of income were I to choke on a hunk of squab or something?

I wouldn't be surprised if my monthly bill keeps a whole floor of green-eyeshade boys employed. Not only am I eating for Phoenix, but for the well-being of the American economy! Each time the Dow Jones slips, I have to ingest my weight in wagyu beef and chug a bottle of white truffle oil to compensate for the decline. Hell, it's the least I can do for Uncle Sam.

They say you get what you pay for, though this theory works better in the field of prostitution than in food prep. That's not to say that you can't have some jolly good repasts when you shell out the buckaroo-bobs. But an expensive tab does not necessarily equal a satisfying chowdown. There's nothing more galling than dropping $150 on a less-than-superior spread, I tell you. Particularly when there are above-average feasts to be had for a fraction of that amount.


Noodles Ranch

2765 North Scottsdale Road (southeast corner of Scottsdale and Thomas roads), Scottsdale

Green papaya salad: $7

Crispy happy pancake: $7

Combination pho: $7

Warm banana bread pudding: $3 480-945-3182, web link.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.

So far, I've eaten four times at Scottsdale's Noodles Ranch, a Vietnamese bistro set in a small shopping center on the southeast corner of Scottsdale and Thomas roads. The combined total of all of my meals there, which on each occasion included a companion and excess vittles, equaled the price of one dinner for two at such spots where only the swells sup.

The year-old establishment has yet to acquire a liquor license, so the most expensive libation is a glass of ginger-limeade at $2.50 a pop. Moreover, with entrees topping out at $8, Noodles Ranch is the textbook definition of "dead cheap." Even if they add brew sometime in the near future -- which I most certainly hope they do -- it's unlikely you'll ever have to bust out a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant.

A pleasant environment is a plus, though I've yet to frequent a hole in the wall I couldn't handle if tum-tum-worthy. But you won't be slumming it at Noodles Ranch. Though not fancy, it is charming enough, with red paper umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, and electric-blue-and-silver booths. The Prussian blue walls are hung with blowups of black-and-white photos depicting, say, a Vietnamese market or Vietnamese ladies in traditional ao dais traversing a rickety bamboo bridge. Plaintive Vietnamese tunes are piped in via stereo, rounding out the ambiance.

Chances are the owners will be waiting on you, either Andre or Noel Nguyen, who moved here from Seattle in search of less overcast climes. Both are from Vietnam originally, Andre from the South, and Noel from the North, and they met in Seattle some time after the fall of Saigon in 1975. A friendly, intelligent couple, with three kids, one in college, they exude an almost otherworldly patience. Especially with me, as I quickly exhausted their supply of young coconut juice on repeat visits. Light, sweet and refreshing with big slices of tender white coconut languishing in the bottom of the glass, I'm a little ashamed to think of how many I consumed in the course of four meals. Anywhere from 12 to 16!

The Nguyens took over the business about six months ago and changed the name from Pho AZ. As I never made it to Pho AZ, I can't speak to how the menu compares to what it was, but I can tell you it's exceptional at present. No doubt Andre's experience accounts for much of this. Andre attended culinary school in Seattle, and owned a well-regarded restaurant in Bellevue, Washington. He also co-authored the book Vietnamese Home Cooking for Everyone, drawing on the recipes of his family.

However, the proof is in the pho, to coin a phrase, and indeed, I gorged myself on bowl after bowl of that traditional beef-broth-based soup, a staple of the Vietnamese diet. There are a number of variations on the pho theme, always with fresh mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, limes and chiles that you can add as you please. Every table has a pot of thick brown-black hoisin sauce and a clear-plastic squeeze bottle of fiery Sriracha, so you can make the mixture as cloying or as hot as your tongue demands.

By far, my preference was for the combination pho, with slices of brisket and rare sirloin as well as meatballs, tendon and tripe. But another night I had a seafood special that I reveled in as well, with shrimp, calamari heads, and what has to be the biggest scallop I've ever eaten, nearly as big as a child's fist: 'Twas hard not to grunt as I noshed my way through that thick, pearl-white monstrosity.

The bun, or rice vermicelli noodles, are often served without broth, topped with meats and veggies. Loved the simplicity of the grilled garlic pork (bun thit nuong) served with cucumbers sliced like matchsticks, chopped lettuce, and a little bowl of nuoc cham, or fish sauce condiment. One such dish with a sentence-long name offered a catfish fillet, yellowed from turmeric, and crowned with sprigs of fresh dill. The turmeric gave the catfish a slightly curried taste, and though it won't beat the fried catfish over at Stacy's soul food, it didn't last long on my plate.

The fried Vietnamese egg rolls (sometimes called spring rolls), filled with minced pork, carrots and mushrooms, and the rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls (sometimes called summer rolls), stuffed with sliced pork, shrimp and mint, were both exceptional. So was the thin, omelet-like "crispy happy pancake," kinda like a Vietnamese crepe, crafted with rice flour and stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Slightly greasy and terribly engrossing.

The green papaya and spicy beef salads are perfect summer fare. The green papaya salad, with peanuts, shrimp, pork, and long, soft strands of papaya, was not nearly as hot as its Thai cousin, though just as tasty. The spicy beef salad made up for the papaya salad's lack of spiciness, the beef cloaked in a syrupy goo with a slight chile burn, and covered with pickled onions and roasted shallots. Yeah, there's some green stuff around it, and this, rather than rice, makes the best marriage of flora and fauna since the Garden of Eden.

Desserts like the banana bread pudding oozing cream, and the chocolate-espresso crème brûlée ease the pain of having to depart this blessed nook. Yes, Noodles Ranch roped me in like some Vietnamese cowpoke in a 10-gallon hat. And it did it with food so inexpensive, it puts the pinkie-wagging haute cuisine crowd to shame.

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