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The Pho Chronicles 

Upscale setting for the Vietnamese noodle soup that's good for what ails you, but nothing like your mother made

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008
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Nora Ephron nailed it in her witty "The Chicken Soup Chronicles" in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago: "The other day I felt a cold coming on. So I decided to have chicken soup to ward off the cold. Nonetheless I got the cold. This happens all the time: you think you're getting a cold; you have chicken soup; you get the cold anyway. So: is it possible that chicken soup gives you a cold?"

I tried my best to ignore the cold that was creeping up on me with little cat feet. The day I gave in to it, I stopped at Saul's in Berkeley (1475 Shattuck) on my way home and picked up chicken in the pot (chicken on the bone in rich broth, with carrots, noodles, and matzo ball, $10.50) to go. I heated it up on the stove and crawled into bed with a golden bowlful that gleamed with chicken fat. The fowl was tender, the carrots sweet, the noodles plump and slippery, the matzo ball light and airy. And oh, that revivifying broth, slipping down my throat, warming and opening everything up: I felt wonderful. Jewish penicillin indeed.

Except by the morn I was sick as a dog and remained so for day after day, wishing that I had picked up the double order ($17.95), or that Saul's delivered, and hoped that I didn't have the same virus that Jon Carroll had (he reported in the Chron that he was on day 17).

Apparently I didn't. Within the week I was venturing out for sustenance, but still looking for liquid wellness. I took my sister, Wendy, to Pot de Pho, the new Vietnamese noodle house from chef Khai Duong of Ghirardelli Square's elegant and excellent Ana Mandara. When we entered the corner restaurant, previously home to many spots including Straits Cafe and Spanish Fly, my sister gasped a little and said it didn't look like any pho house she'd ever been in. We'd spent the ride out along Geary reminiscing about pho we'd shared in Los Angeles, Seattle, and the Bay Area, in divey, fluorescent-lit places with Formica tables and quick turnover. (By the by, when I say "fuh," as pho is pronounced, people look at me funny and I feel pretentious; but when I say "pho," somebody inevitably looks at me kindly and says "That's fuh!")

Pot de Pho is a beautiful, sophisticated restaurant, with warm, subtle, low lighting. It's a place where you want to linger. We sat at a dark polished-wood table on dark high-back leather chairs, and unfolded cream-colored napkins. I smiled when I saw the legend "Eat for health, taste for life" atop the one-page printed menu: That's what I was hoping for.

Most pho houses offer dozens of combinations for the meat garnishes of the basic broth with rice noodles, but Pot de Pho has only five: rare steak, well-done beef shank, rare steak and well-done shank, chicken, and vegan, each available in medium or large. No tendon? No tripe? My sister was surprised — so was I — but we went for the beef combination, pho tai chin.

There are also five rice plates, three salads, three rolls, and one dessert. So, in addition to the pho, we order cari vit (curried duck), and goi du du tom thit (green papaya salad). The salad came first: a plate heaped with julienned crunchy green papaya, slivered pork, sliced pink prawns, and crunchy bits of peanuts in a hot and spicy vinaigrette. Stellar.

The pho came in a big steamy bowl full of fat house-made noodles, bean sprouts, and sliced meat, with a side plate bearing onion slices, a big slice of lemon, sprigs of Thai basil, another chopped herb we didn't recognize, and some slivered red chile, with a tiny yin-yang dish holding dark hoisin sauce and bright-red Sriracha-esque hot sauce. A pretty green spouted container held soy sauce. "I prefer it when the bean sprouts come on the side," Wendy said. "They stay crisper." I had to agree. And we both prefer lime to lemon for our pho.

We were told that the second green was "cool cilantro," a new one on us. The pho was just fine. But when you only offer five varieties, and announce on the menu that Chef Duong has spent a lifetime eating and researching pho throughout the world, simmering his broth for many hours with Wasami Kobe-style beef bone and alkalinized water (another new one on me), I expected to be blown away.

I was definitely not blown away by the dish described as "curried duck and lemongrass-marinated duck leg." It was a lone leg with a too-firm texture that didn't taste of lemongrass, just the curry sauce it came in. The best things about the dish were the crisp green beans and succulent lumps of eggplant, which went better with the sauce than the duck.

I also wasn't thrilled with the lone dessert, described as "fried baby banana wrapped in Singapore pastry sheet with tapioca sauce." We each got one tiny pastry. I was surprised that the banana was cold and mushy in the center. My sister loved the thin tapioca sauce, but it didn't rescue the sweet for me. Again, when you only have one dessert on offer, it should be terrific.

We'd admired the decor — the bamboo frieze behind an array of birdcages, the chic light fixtures that looked like three upside-down conical hats — more than the food.

I drove away down Clement in order to show Wendy my favorite high-and-low kitchen-and-dining shops, Period George and Kamei. On the way, we passed Pho Clement (239 Clement, 379-9008), a classic old-style pho joint, its fluorescent light pulsing onto the street.

A couple of days later, I was inexorably drawn there. The menu at Pho Clement offered 25 different versions of pho (and 150 other dishes; I'm not kidding, they're all numbered). I sat on a red-leatherette diner seat at a woodish table and ordered number 7, tai nam gan sach, with rare steak, well-done flank, tendon, and tripe. A small portion cost $6.25. This time the rice noodles were thin, the onions were in the broth, and the bean sprouts were on the side with lime. The forest of condiments on the table included Sriracha hot sauce, hoisin, soy, chile oil, sesame oil, and vinegar, as well as salt and pepper. The rare steak blushed pink, the tendon was pure jelly texture, and the bleached-white tripe was pure chewy texture. And although the setting's comforts were minimal (it's eight blocks from Pot de Pho, but a world away), the pho tasted just swell.

I did return, on my own, to Pot de Pho. I tried the chicken pho, which I liked better than the beef. Little curls of caramelized onions lent their sweet, smoky essence to the broth, heady with scallions, and I liked the velvety shreds and slices of meat. Fresh shrimp and pork spring rolls with a peanut dipping sauce were much like the ones you get at Slanted Door or pull from the refrigerated case at banh mi places in the Tenderloin. The most exciting dish was the gan bo salad: sliced beef tendon — transparent, crunchy, and chewy like some weird sea beast — draped over a shocking quantity of raw sliced onions, the whole squiggled with hoisin and hot sauce. There was more than enough for two, at only $24 for three dishes. And in such a pretty room.

I lingered by a big glass case filled with bowls bearing cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, and bundles of cinnamon bark. I wished I'd tasted more of them in Pot de Pho's broth.

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Meredith Brody

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