The menu lists 21 pho varieties, ranging from $6.80 for a regular size, which is very hard for a normal adult to finish; $7.80 for large, which must be unimaginably gigantic. Embellish with side orders of meatball ($1.10) and round steak ($2).
The popular No. 1 features eye of round steak, very well-done flank steak, fat brisket, soft tendon and shredded tripe. It's a textural carnival. The tripe is a little rubbery and looks more like a fluffy sea anemone than the lining of beef stomach. Tendon soaks up the flavor of the broth, with hints of star anise. The beef bits are very thinly sliced, and quickly get overcooked.
Just so you know, meat is advertised as a "topping." These soups are mainly broth and noodles. By now in the Bay Area, we know that pho is not pronounced "fo" but closer to "fuh."
A posted photo of an off-the-menu special looks appetizing. This bun rieu ca ($8.50) is a deep red, spicy tomato-chicken broth with vermicelli (thin wheat-flour) noodles, shrimp and crab "paste" — that is, fish balls. It is spicier than the pho, but also light and tasty.
Decor is informal, befitting an aged storefront. But drinks are served on a small tray, as are bean sprouts (remarkably fresh, not limp), sprigs of Thai basil, slices of jalapeno peppers and lemons. These you plop into your soup to personalize it. The same with the condiments already on the table, so you can create your signature soup or have it a different way every time.
Stick with broth-focused items. The cha gio ($6.75), four good-size deep-fried egg rolls, were hot and crunchy, but the interior ground pork, shrimp and vegetables were almost mushy. We could have had fresh greens and herbs to wrap them in, not the couple of sad pieces of lettuce.
The large menu offers char-grilled meats, seafood and vegetables on rice or vermicelli, some stews and sautes. Broth is clearly the specialty.
A sea of tables could seat 84 people. Pho To Chau is the rare kind of place where you don't feel weird being the only diners, which we were for the first ten minutes. Tables are infinitely adaptable to groups of any size and age.
Pale yellow walls feature photos of dishes that are surprisingly accurate, and placid prints of river scenery and flowers. OK, it's dingy. But tables are clean, and stocked with containers of clean spoons, chopsticks, napkins. Also hoisin, chile and soy sauces. Another nice touch: Cold drinks are inserted with straws, the top of the protective covering still there.
If you wait for the check, you'll spend the night. Get up and pay at the counter, where despite the credit card decals on the front window a sign requests cash. "It would help if you pay in cash" because of bank charges. Again, have it your way.
Pho To Chau:
853 Villa St., Mountain View. (650) 961-8069
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
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