Pho 'Phun'

The Hottest Dish In America Right Now Is A Bowl.

By Rebecca Cook

JUST A FEW short weeks ago, there I was living high on The Weekly's expense account at The Tack Room. The following week I was schlepping around the neighborhood at Grant Road and Stone Avenue, looking for the new Vietnamese restaurant Pho Thu, which specializes almost exclusively in the beef noodle soup known popularly as pho.

This is a mighty distance to travel in the span of a week.

Chow For those who've lived in Tucson for more than a few weeks, I have only to mention that Pho Thu can be found in the former digs of two other Vietnamese restaurants (The Three Sisters and Cock Asian), and you'll immediately know whereof I speak. Located in what can charitably be called an industrial district, Pho Thu might easily be overlooked, but this would be a mistake.

Okay, so you have to go out and buy The Club before you'll even consider leaving your car unattended in this part of town for more than 10 minutes. And so what if the building looks as though it hasn't had an upgrade since Richard Nixon was president? The interior lighting is bright and garish, illuminating dark plywood paneling, a disco ball and karaoke stand.

Sometimes good food requires more than petty concerns for personal safety or pampered pleasure. Who knew a bowl of noodle soup would be an adventure?

And this isn't just any old noodle soup. We're talking pho (pronounced "fuh," like "foot" without the t), the national dish of Vietnam, the soup mentioned in the reverent tones usually reserved for discussion of the ancestors. The dish has recently become so popular in this country that a set of chains featuring nothing else have become favorites on both coasts, as well as in New Orleans and Texas. Pho is totally phat.

The soup's enduring mystique begins in the time-consuming distillation of a rich and full-flavored broth. Most frequently, beef shinbones are simmered with a handful of spices, herbs and salt for no less than 24 hours. This stock forms the basis of the 16 soups listed on Pho Thu's menu, with the exception of one chicken, one pork and beef, and one pork and shrimp variation.

Depending on the depth of your commitment to adventure, there are several pho possibilities. Rare and well-done slices of beef can be added as can dense, tiny meatballs, brisket or shanks. Tripe and beef tendon (which reportedly adds a delicious slick of grease to your bowl) can also be included. Rumor has it that the Vietnamese are enamored of the tripe, while Americans tend to stick with the more familiar strips of identifiable meat. True to my culture (and my cowardly nature), I ordered the rare beef pho ($4.50).

Once the order hits the kitchen, the process is roughly this: the cook places a nest of thin rice noodles in the bottom of a large bowl and then ladles over it a steaming cascade of savory broth. Chopped scallions, fresh coriander and mint, and sliced white onion are set afloat on the surface along with the requested beef portion.

The soup arrives at your table still steaming and emitting an aroma that's restorative even on the hottest day of the year. A side dish of garnishes, including limes, hot green chile peppers, basil, coriander and crispy bean sprouts are served with the soup, any or all of which can be used to customize to your taste. (Pho literally translates "your own bowl.") If the beef seems too rare, or you want to blanch the bean sprouts, you are to grab some chopsticks and gently push the meat or vegetables under the broth into the riot of noodles resting on the bottom.

Hot red chile and garlic, hoisin and nuoc nam (fish) sauces can be swirled in along with the other garnishes to create a dish of singular appeal.

Now, the real fun begins.

Chopsticks and soup may not seem the ideal match to most Americans, but this (along with the assistance of a short, squat spoon) is the primary method of conveying noodles and vegetables from bowl to mouth. The proposition strikes justifiable fear into the heart of the novice pho slurper. Given the potentially ludicrous results, Pho Thu is not recommended for first dates, clothing labeled "Dry Clean Only" or business lunches designed to impress clients.

For the rest of you, tuck in your napkins and dig in. My made-to-order pho was a heavenly brew, even though I went a little overboard on the red chile sauce, which turned up the heat just a tad too high for this time of year. My bowl was softly infused with fresh coriander leaves (which I generally prefer in small doses only), a generous squeeze of lime, a handful of bean sprouts, a sprinkling of fresh basil, and a spoonful of the fiery red chile and garlic sauce.

Along with the tender strips of steak and the translucent rice noodles, I concocted the single best bowl of pho I've ever tasted, bar none. It's a stroke of genius to let the diner decide to what degree he or she would like to experience powerful ingredients such as coriander, basil and chile sauce rather than script the proportions to suit only a handful of patrons. You can hardly complain when you're the one responsible for the finished product.

Besides, it's kind of "phun" to be so totally engaged in making a meal while dining out.

In order to achieve the ideal bowl, it is necessary to give pho your undivided attention. Staying focused at Pho Thu, however, is exceptionally difficult. For reasons I can't even begin to fathom, the proprietors have placed front and center in the establishment a large-screen TV, which beams not the hottest sports event of the day, not CNN or Headline News, not even Vietnamese television broadcasts, but videotapes covering some pretty puzzling subjects. The night we visited, the featured video appeared to be a nature tour of Australia, complete with several withering shots of large reptiles ingesting tiny rodents. No matter how diners tried to avert their eyes from the screen, they all seemed to find themselves sooner or later gaping incredulously at the next slithery deed.

All I can say is I'm glad I steered clear of that tendon.

Vegetarians are going to find it a little challenging to find something to eat at Pho Thu, but the owners have done a good job of incorporating a few dishes to placate the meat-free crowd. Mixed vegetables served atop white rice along with some golden sticks of fried tofu ($3.99) was an elegant preparation, and especially delicious once some of the tableside sauces were deployed. A limited number of non-Pho Vietnamese dishes are also on the menu, and daily specials are highlighted on a dry-erase board near the front entrance.

Spring rolls (rice paper wrapped around shrimp and shredded fresh vegetables and herbs; $2.99) and crispy egg rolls (filled with ground pork, rice noodle shreds and vegetables; $1.99) were greaseless and thoroughly enjoyable.

Although there is no beer or wine service, there are some unusual beverage selections to consider. I ordered coconut juice ($2.50) and was surprised to receive a shaved coconut with a clear, sweet and nutty liquid. I can't say I was bowled over by the drink, but it was certainly interesting.

Pho Thu is quirky and a bit derelict, but it certainly offers Tucson a delicious opportunity to join in on yet another culinary craze at blissfully inexpensive prices. I have only one piece of advice for the owners: lose the snakes.

Pho Thu. 2226 N. Stone Ave. 670-1705. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. No liquor. V,MC. Menu items: $1.99-$8.99. TW

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