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Phodown 

New Saigon City, Turtle Tower, Vietnam II

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002
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Any number of things could bring a person to the Tenderloin's Larkin Street corridor, a gritty enclave where young bohemians and Civic Center 9-to-5ers pass immigrants, strip club patrons, students from the nearby Culinary Academy, and the occasional obscenity-spouting thug. I came for pho, Vietnam's famed beef noodle soup, which pairs seasoned stock, rice noodles, and your choice of bovine tidbits with the ubiquitous plate of garnishes to produce a striking mosaic of textures and flavors. I didn't just want good pho; I wanted something phabulous, a beef noodle soup that stood head and shoulders above its Larkin Street brethren. Better yet, I wanted a pho that rivaled the best version I've ever had -- at Pho To Chau, in Honolulu's Chinatown, which is a bit farther than I'd normally travel for a meal.

First, a pho primer. Technically, it's pronounced "fuh," but since I feel like a poser saying it that way, for me "pho" will always rhyme with "go." Pho is traditionally eaten for breakfast and lunch, yet like omelets, jook, and chilaquiles, it makes a fine meal at any time, day or night. The prime test of a pho joint is the stock (most often spiced with star anise, cinnamon, and ginger). You can pick meats to suit your taste, but for the purposes of this review I focused on the all-inclusive beef combination. Generally, the best pho houses are the most crowded; hence, I visited New Saigon City, near Golden Gate, which does a brisk business during the lunch hour. Inside, a gigantic Buddha grins amid gorgeous, lacquered portraits. The 100-plus-item menu contains many familiar choices. To impress my friend Rachel with my willingness to try bizarre-sounding drinks, I ordered the "egg yolk and condensed milk with club soda" -- a frothy, surprisingly tasty concoction reminiscent of a milkshake, only spritzier.

New Saigon City offers some fine versions of Vietnamese classics, including a refreshing salad of shrimp, shredded pork, cabbage, and earthy lotus seed, plus a hot and sour soup with catfish, pineapple, and tomato, spiked with a tantalizing note of tamarind. Bo luc lac -- often known as "shaking beef" -- was sensational, pairing tender cubes of marinated steak with a zippy, lime-pepper dipping sauce. Avoid the "prawns in casserole," a trio of plump crustaceans simmered in a clay pot with an unappealing, pungent red sauce. The combination pho, meanwhile, felt like an afterthought. The rich beef stock was far too redolent of star anise, and the selection of meats (a few scraps of rare steak, robust Vietnamese-style meatballs, and prickly, slithery tripe) and garnishes (basil, lime, bean sprouts, chilies) seemed merely average. Better to have pho next door at Phu Huong -- itself a worthwhile establishment that's comparable to, say, Irving Street's Pho Phu Quoc or Geary's Pho Hoa Ky.

But to return to the Tenderloin: Since I'm on the subject of Vietnamese food in the 'hood, I should send a shout-out to Saigon Sandwiches at 560 Larkin, where the bahn mi on crusty French bread is one of the finest lunches you'll ever have for $2. Up the street, the popular pho house Turtle Tower draws an almost exclusively Asian crowd, which often spills out the door come lunchtime. It's a tiny place with spare, clean décor and a brief, 22-item menu. We began with an espressolike Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk over ice and a cloudy, pleasantly tart "soursop drink." Turtle Tower's take on bahn mi consisted of beef stewed in red wine (it needed a touch of hot sriracha sauce to perk it up), with French bread served on the side. Other lunch plates were superb. Smoky grilled pork over rice came with a spicy yet sweet nuoc cham dipping sauce. The most expensive item on the menu, grilled fish, translated as tender, turmeric-stained fillets layered with fresh dill, to be mixed at your table with rice vermicelli, peanuts, and a purplish, chocolaty shrimp sauce.

The pho, meanwhile, was done in the mild Hanoi style. A light, clean-tasting beef and chicken stock was accented with green onion and cilantro. Garnishes were limited to chili and lime (a bummer), but the pho came with thick, luscious, chow fun-style fresh rice noodles. Chicken pho was served with (duh) poached chicken, while the beef combination featured a selection of meats so impressive it could have won over a vegan. Silky rare beef led to intensely flavorful, well-done flank steak, then to brisket so fatty and rich my eyes rolled back into my head. The combo also came with tripe, a cut I like less and less the more I eat it. Still, the pho here was first rate, though not quite as stellar as the version at Vietnam II.

Don't let the dingy pink awning at Larkin and Ellis streets fool you: Vietnam II is the neighborhood's swankest pho joint, where a trickling fountain feeds a small koi pond. At the heart of the lunch hour, the place functions as a great melting pot -- we saw postal workers, construction types, and snazzily dressed Asian businessmen with their ties flung over their shoulders, lest the precious silk dip into their massive bowls of soup. Oddly, this is the only one of the three restaurants that serves the hoppy Vietnamese "33" beer. We started with spring rolls -- tacky rice-flour wrappers filled with lettuce, bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp -- which awakened the palate with a cool, minty kick. Slender, toothsome stalks of ong choy were sautéed with garlic and savory shrimp sauce. Roasted duck and fried potatoes nestled in a subtly spiced brown curry. The only misfire was bun rieu -- a mix of ground crab and egg, rice vermicelli, and fried tofu served in fishy-tasting tomato broth.

Then came the pho, approximately a quart of luxurious, barely sweet beef stock, as carefully nuanced as a fine consommé. Turtle Tower regulars may miss fresh rice noodles -- Vietnam II offers only the standard dried version -- but no reasonable human being could object to the beef combo's array of well-done flank steak and brisket, rare eye round, meatballs, tripe, and (bless me) strips of tendon, whose texture might best be described as a cross between chewing gum and al dente pasta. Garnishes included the standard chilies, bean sprouts, basil, and lime, as well as refreshing sprigs of mint and a heap of crunchy shredded cabbage. The last two ingredients (rarities in these parts) had also charmed me in Honolulu -- a place that smacks more of paradise than the TL, but has nothing on us when it comes to pho.

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Greg Hugunin

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