Last year at 5634 Rivers Avenue I was eating beef tongue tacos and washing them down with a super-size margarita. Back then, it was home to Raul's Taqueria, the Day of the Dead-themed Mexican joint that closed its doors last September. On a recent trip to the same location, a diminutive Vietnamese woman pointed and gestured, showing me how to break up basil leaves and cilantro and add them to a bowl of Pho Dac Biet. Phuong Nguyen and her husband Dat, formerly of Pho #1 inside the H&L market, snatched up the small space and opened Phuong, a traditional Vietnamese restaurant.
While the new space retains the same bright orange and green color scheme of Raul's, the Day of the Dead murals are gone, the smell of savory broth and basil is in the air, and it feels more inviting overall.
Rare beef, well-done brisket, beef meatballs, and tripe are some of the many pho options. A combination of sliced rare beef, meatballs, and rice noodles make up the Pho Tái Chin Nam ($8.95). The broth is savory, but not exaggerated, allowing diners to sweeten it up with a few drops of hoisin, or add a bit of fire with sriracha. A side of crisp bean sprouts, lime wedges, and fresh basil and cilantro is not only visually pleasing but adds a satisfying fresh herbal element to every bite. The downside: the large slices of beef are more well-done than rare.
In addition to the pho, the menu lists a handful of hot and cold appetizers, and various rice and noodle dishes. Starters such as large, fresh rice paper spring rolls with peanut sauce ($4.25/pair) and Vietnamese egg rolls stuffed with carrots, mushrooms, ground pork, and vermicelli ($3.45/pair) are good, but the Bánh Xèo ("sizzling cake") is where it's at. Rice flour, water, and oil make up the thin, crepe-like, cake. Bean sprouts, onion, and pork or shrimp are added to the pancake before it's folded over. The eggless omelet arrives at the table topped with crispy fried shallots, fresh basil, and cilantro to the side. As the owners suggest, take a leaf of lettuce and wrap it around a piece of the pancake and fresh herbs, then dip it in a bowl of fish sauce.
From the egg noodle soup options, we chose the Mi Vit Quay, or roasted duck soup ($10.99). The broth is similar to that of the pho, but bursts with extra flavor from the crispy roasted duck. Diners beware: the cuts of duck still contain bones. While it's near impossible to eat the bowl of soup with a wonton spoon and chopsticks, we can thank the bone for a lot of the flavor. As usual, a plate of bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, and lime came on the side.
There's a little something for everyone at Phuong. The non-adventurous will be happy to know that the fried rice and noodle options are no joke. Just about every protein is available with either rice or noodles. We wanted it all, so we went for the Com Chien Dac Biet — fried rice with shrimp, roasted pork, egg, and Chinese sausage. It fell perfectly in the sweet spot between greasy and dry, and the components combine to create an outstanding plate of rice.
The best and most surprising dish is a bowl of cold rice vermicelli loaded up with sliced Vietnamese egg rolls, pork, chicken, beef, and shrimp — Bun Dac Biet ($10.99). Each of the proteins pack a zesty, gingery punch, and the union of hot and cold get your taste buds dancing. As with the pho, the bowl of noodles can be doctored up to your liking. It was suggested that we add a swirl of fish sauce and then stir the noodles and protein with the lettuce, basil, and cilantro. The result is a fantastic salty, sweet, herbal flavor sensation.
Each of the dishes at Phuong demonstrates a high level of authenticity, as does the service. While English-speaking servers generally take orders, Phuong herself has been delivering food to tables with excitement and enthusiasm. She doesn't speak much English, but she makes sure diners know what's for dipping, what's for wrapping, and what's for adding. She wants everyone to experience what it would be like to sit down and have a meal with her family. It's a family-run business, after all, and that gives us the sense of warmth and hospitality that one would feel dining in the suburbs of Saigon.