Too many notes. At least that’s my biased Western view of most Asian menus. In the case of Vietnamese restaurants, it’s the pho noodle soups that drive me nuts. So, do you want the soup with brisket, steak, meatball, book tripe, and soft tendon? Or the one with steak, brisket, soft tendon, and book tripe — but no meatballs? Or maybe just well-done eye-round steak, with or without meatballs …
It was in this frame of mind that we decided to forgo the pho at Pho Thien An, despite the soup looming large in the name. For that matter, we eschewed all soups, of which there are about two dozen. Give or take. The first dish to cross our lips was the winter roll platter. Have you ever had a winter roll? Neither had we. At least there are only four seasons.
This fried roll is distinguished by both pork pieces and slivered pork skins, plus a little lettuce and cilantro, and it is at once very simple and very good. Make liberal use of the dipping medium, fragrant with the ubiquitous fish sauce. Then hope that your goi du du tom thit comes with its main ingredient not quite as green as ours was.
Green-papaya salad is a personal favorite, a kind of bellwether in Vietnamese establishments, and, mantled with slivers of pork and shrimp and dusted with crushed peanut, its appearance here was very promising. There was plenty of aromatic fresh basil, too, but neither it nor the sweetish dressing could mask the bitterness of the meticulously slivered papaya. The crunch was good, the too-green taste was not.
But we quickly moved on to what was effectively another salad, the rare beef and lemon juice with purple onion. (It’s either #99 or #105 depending on which menu you’re reading.) The chef and owner emerged from the kitchen to make sure we were OK with really rare beef. We were — all the more so after the dish arrived. Tangles of deep-fried shallots (or very thinly sliced scallion) mingled with the raw onion (it was actually white, not red), there was more of that fragrant basil, the beef was perfect, and sprinkles of the salt and peppercorn mixture from a saucer served on the side only enhanced the flavors. There was a discernable afterburn, which pleased us even more.
The various bun dishes aren’t quite as complex in their combinations and permutations as the pho, but there are 14 of these irresistible rice noodle bowls nonetheless. Perhaps because it was named for the restaurant, we selected the bun thien an, vermicelli with grilled pork, spring roll, and shrimp cake. Don’t worry about the shrimp cake; it’s more like a meaty sausage and was for us a minor player in this very attractive package. On the basis of this, spring rolls would be worth ordering on their own, as would anything with grilled pork. Add any and all available sauces.
Apart from the presence of two TVs, sound on low but tuned to competing channels, Pho Thien An is a very pleasant place, a cut above the often offhand décor of many of its competitors. So we really didn’t mind hanging around for the arrival of the frogg (sic) legs stirfried with lemon grass and chili pepper. An aroma of yellow curry arose from the dish, its promise confirmed on the tongue; the spice blend seemed altogether appropriate for the Lilliputian appendages, the tiny legs mostly separated from the diminutive thighs. It takes some work to eat these, a mess will result, and your fingers will be aromatic for hours. It’s worth it. Make liberal use of the steamed rice to capture any errant sauce.
Dessert, even the siren-sounding combination of bean pudding with tapioca, jelly, coconut milk, and peanut, seemed superfluous after all this. Maybe next time when we return for the “pricy but tasty” shrimp salad, the “shaky-shaky” beef, or perhaps the spicy beef tendon noodle soup with pork hock and pork blood. There are, of course, variations on this last theme. •
Pho Thien An
126 W. Rector