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.