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November 05, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, November 05, 2004

Rainy day solution Rainy day solution (November 05, 2004)

Vietnamese noodle soup comforts

By Mandy Erickson

It's easy to order nothing but pho, the Vietnamese beef-and-rice-noodle soup, at Pho Vi Hoa. First, there's the restaurant's name. Then there's the green neon sign, "Noodle House," on the front window. Finally, there's the menu, half of which is devoted to describing and listing various types of pho.

But that would be a mistake. Pho Vi Hoa (pronounced fuh-vee-hwa), at Village Court in Los Altos, serves up a nice pho. But it offers other good eats, including salads and Chinese stir-fry as well as a seafood version of the soup.

Pho, which originated in Hanoi about 100 years ago, is the national dish of Vietnam, where it's eaten primarily for breakfast, though also for lunch and dinner. It's made by pouring boiling broth over a mound of barely-cooked rice noodles and paper-thin slices of raw and cooked beef. By itself, pho is rather plain, but the soup is served with a plate of herbs, bean sprouts, lime and peppers, all of which you add to the broth to give it complexity.

Pho Vi Hoa offers variations of pho that include different cuts of meat -- you choose your own combination. It also has "nonfat" and "little bit of fat" varieties, the nonfat recommended for those new to pho.

My flank, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatball pho ($5.45 small, $6.45 large) featured a rich beef broth and al dente rice noodles. The tendon and tripe were soft, while the flank and brisket had a pleasant bite. The only meat I didn't like were the meatballs, which I found rubbery and gamey.

The pho arrived with a plate of bean sprouts, several basil sprigs, a few slices of fresh jalape´┐Żo, a wedge of lime and one sprig of cilantro. I was disappointed there wasn't more cilantro, as it provides more punch than the mellower basil.

Some of the meat slices in my pho were rimmed with fat, a little like that in a slice of bacon. The fat adds taste and richness to the beef. It's not off-putting, so unless you're watching your cholesterol, I recommend ordering the "little bit of fat" pho. At any rate, you may not be able to avoid it: The cuts in my nonfat pho ($5.45 small, $6.45 large) were just as fatty.

Or, you can avoid the beef and order Pho Vi Hoa's terrific seafood noodle soup ($6.95 small, $7.95 large). It's similar to pho, only with shrimp, pork, a large crab claw, squid and fish cake in fish broth. The broth was rich and flavorful, the seafood fresh and perfectly cooked. This dish came with no basil, but plenty of cilantro, which works well with seafood.

You could just do noodle soup at Pho Vi Hoa, but it's worth trying an appetizer, too. My favorite was lotus root salad ($6.95), a refreshing mix of julienned carrot, celery, onion and cucumbers, basil leaves and tomato slices. It was tossed in a well-balanced sweet-sour vinaigrette and sprinkled with peanuts. The lotus root, a symbol of purity in Buddhism, had a faint anise taste and a texture similar to onion. One salad was plenty for two diners.

But the broiled shrimp on sugar cane (two for $7.95) was a disappointment. The shrimp, which was ground into a paste, wrapped around sugar cane and fried, was greasy and slightly fishy tasting. It came with lettuce, tomato and cucumbers but it wasn't obvious how it was to be eaten. (I later learned that you pull the shrimp off the cane, add cucumbers and tomatoes to your liking, wrap it in lettuce and eat it like a taco.)

As for non-soup meals, an excellent choice was lemon grass chicken ($7.95). Not as strongly flavored with lemon grass as this dish often is, it was still delicious, a delicate balance of spice, vinegar, garlic and lemon grass. The dish included rice but no vegetables. When my dining companion asked our waitress if the cook could add vegetables to the dish, she suggested a side dish of broccoli, carrots and bok choy ($2). Steamed without any flavoring, they were slightly overcooked.

Besides a small menu of Chinese stir-fry dishes, Pho Vi Hoa offers combinations of grilled meat, served with either rice or rice noodles. The meat in our "grilled marinated shrimp, chicken, egg rolls" rice plate ($8.45) was moist and well cooked, though, like the pho, needed doctoring to add kick. The accompanying sweet-sour, lightly spiced dipping sauce helped, as did the hoisin and hot sauces that adorn every table.

The rice plate came with a small bowl of a flavorful, clear broth and a composed salad of sliced tomatoes and cucumber and leaves of iceberg lettuce in vinaigrette. The downer of the meal was the egg roll, which, though freshly fried and crispy, lacked much interest.

The menu lists a variety of drinks, including pearl taro ($2.25), a sort of light milkshake with tapioca "pearls." I liked its earthy flavor and its light-purple color, but found it needed more ice, as the cubes melted quickly and the tapioca balls were too warm. The restaurant's lemonade ($1.95) was light, tart and refreshing and made with real fruit -- only it was lime, not lemon. It wasn't a problem, as lime complements Vietnamese food better, anyway. The Thai iced tea ($1.95) was standard issue.

Pho Vi Hoa is large, open and full of tables, so the atmosphere resembled that of a cafeteria, and it can be noisy. But the furniture is tasteful, a soothing color scheme of red-stained wood and green upholstery, and the booths that line the outer walls are cozy.

The restaurant's service unfortunately adds to the feeling of being in a cafeteria. Though the wait staff gave us enough time to peruse the menu before they approached, our food arrived in less time than seemed possible. Servers also tended to toss the food on our table without regard to who ordered which dish. Despite their haste, however, none made an error during my three visits.

Now that the rainy season has arrived, Pho Vi Hoa is a terrific place for a comforting bowl of soup. But venture past the pho: Though the rest of the menu can be a little hit or miss, you'll likely be glad you did.

Dining Notes

Pho Vi Hoa
4546 El Camino Real, Los Altos

Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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