Use Your Noodle

Pho 1 is worth finding, thanks to its delicious Vietnamese offerings

Don't let the Stone Avenue address fool you: Pho 1 is not on Stone Avenue. The sign sits squarely on the corner of Stone and Sahuaro Street, but this quaint restaurant is really on Sahuaro, about two doors east of Stone.

The outside appearance is a bit deceiving as well. The building looks small, but the dining room is actually pretty big. There's nothing fancy here, but Pho 1 is a marked improvement over the building's previous incarnation as a dimly lit, shabby place that always looked like it was on the verge of being shuttered. New owners took over last year and spiffed the place up with brighter lighting, removed some of the beat-up booths, gave the walls a new coat of paint and either cleaned or replaced the carpeting.

Pho, of course, is a key menu item. There are at least 14 variations of the dish. Combinations include rare beef, well-done beef, beef shank, tendon, tripe, meatballs, shrimp, imitation crab, tofu and chicken-breast meat. Prices range from $6.75 to $7.25; for $2 more, you can get a larger bowl or have extra meat added. The menu also lists other Vietnamese soups, rice-noodle bowls, rice dishes and a handful of appetizers.

We sampled the meatball pho ($6.95), the charbroiled-pork rice-noodle bowl ($6.75), the spicy-chicken rice-noodle with lemongrass bowl ($7.75) and the Vietnamese fried chicken with rice ($8.75). For appetizers, we had the pork and shrimp spring rolls ($3.75), the calamari tempura ($8.95) and the Vietnamese egg rolls ($3.95).

The apps were all done well. The egg rolls were good-sized and packed with finely chopped vegetables. As with some of the other dishes, they were served with nuoc cham, a Vietnamese dipping sauce that is both tangy and sweet. Together, the sauce and egg rolls rocked.

The translucent wrappers of the spring rolls gave us a hint of what was inside: rice noodles, lettuce, tiny bites of pink shrimp, bits of pork and one leaf of Thai basil. Artful and pretty, they proved that one eats with the eyes first. They tasted amazingly fresh, and the sweet/salty sauce served alongside added a bit of earthiness to these light appetizers.

The calamari tempura consisted of tiny bites of squid in an airy but crispy coating that was lightly seasoned. These pieces could almost be described as popcorn squid. This time, the dip was a warm sweet-and-sour-like sauce. With a squeeze of lime, these little morsels were a great starter.

Both noodle dishes were tasty and satisfying. If you are not familiar with Vietnamese rice-noodle dishes, this is what you get: On the bottom are chopped cucumbers, lots of shredded lettuce and bean sprouts; other raw veggies are sometimes part of the mix. Then come long, light, vermicelli-style rice noodles, served at room temperature or even cold. The dish is then topped with a protein, chopped peanuts and finely crumbled fried-egg-roll wrappers. Nuoc cham is always there for enhancement. Texturally, the dish is all over the place—in a most-pleasant way.

While the spicy chicken could've been spicier, it was still full of flavors that melded perfectly. The charbroiled pork also was delicious, with just enough char.

The pho was interesting, to say the least. The typical pho vegetables and rice noodles were artfully prepared in a wonderfully aromatic and flavorful broth. However, the meatballs were—in a word—weird. Ground finely and boiled until they were gray in color, they had a decidedly testicular look.

We had no problems whatsoever with the fried chicken. This dish was artfully plated with cut-up dark meat that had been fried to an unbelievable crunch. At first glance, it looked burned, but just one bite revealed that the bird was perfectly cooked. It had been marinated before frying, which lent a sweet and savory punch. A good-sized portion of white rice was served with it. Paula Deen has nothing on this fried chicken.

The service on both visits was wonderful. Thanks to teamwork by the staff, we had everything in a timely and friendly manner.

We also ordered the Vietnamese iced coffee ($2.50). It is served drip-style right at the table, and the server went out of his way to demonstrate the proper procedure. A warning: This coffee is not for the faint of heart. Even with a glass full of ice, it was strong—but delicious.

Dessert, if you can call it that, consisted of orange slices and fortune cookies.

The only bummer is that there is no bahn mi on the menu; I have become addicted to these sandwiches. However, that's my problem, not the restaurant's problem. With the tag line "special rice noodle soup" under its name, Pho 1 proudly touts its specialty, as it should.

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