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Feast of the East 

The titular noodle soup makes PHO QUANG the toast of the Vietnamese section of eastern New Orleans.

If you want to learn the basic differences between American and Vietnamese diners, you should research the goings-on at a restaurant specializing in pho (pronounced something like "fuh"), Vietnamese beef noodle soup. You'll notice that Vietnamese diners polish their plastic chopsticks with napkins after pulling them from the chopstick caddie. You'll hear that slurping is not only tolerated but celebrated there, and you'll observe that the average Vietnamese diner is as nimble at tearing green herbs from their woody stems as Americans are at ripping open catsup packets. Take it from me, it's quite possible to become enamored with the world of Vietnamese dining and commerce while conducting this kind of research in the section of eastern New Orleans sometimes referred to as "Versailles."

It's also possible to fall for Vietnam's national dish even if your experiences with catsup packets outweigh your time spent tearing herbs. Pho Quang, where you sometimes get your pho less than a minute after you've ordered it, might be the best place to pursue this courtship. Served in deep, wide bowls, pho consists of hot broth, delicate rice noodles, an anatomical survey of beef parts, and self-added mung bean sprouts and torn herbs, which at Pho Quang include purple basil and ngo gai, a long, saw tooth leaf from the coriander family that tastes like lemony aluminum foil. Although everyone additionally doctors his pho manually with any combination of lime juice, fresh green chiles and hoisin, fish (nuoc mam) and chile sauces, a pho's clear beef broth is no trifle: Just like with gumbo, the best bowl of pho can be distinguished on the authority of its broth alone.

Pho Quang's broth is a pleasant touch stronger on cinnamon and star anise than some of its contenders, and it teems with tiny bubbles that suggest a bit of fatty flavoring was allowed entry. Pho Quang's kitchen, which seems to be the same as its two-person waitstaff, sprinkles chopped cilantro and green onion on the soup so that it's infused with herby traces before it hits the table. I can think of few more seductive fragrances than the steam that swells up when the basil you've torn hits the hot beef soup and explodes with damp, sweet anise. In the restaurant's bare environs, this ecstasy is heightened by pop music that often sounds like a Vietnamese Celine Dion accompanied by Andean street musicians.

Pho Quang's menu offers 20-odd pho varieties, an overwhelming list until you realize that the selections include permutations of only seven changeable ingredients: rare slices of flank steak that cook in the hot broth, fatty brisket, eye of round, omosa (tripe), navel, tendon and, in one case, meatballs. If you have a question about the menu that doesn't convert well to hand signals ­ like why you can't order the big metal pot of soup the group of men are dipping raw beef into at a nearby table -- the waitress will fetch her gracious boss to translate.

For a tour of the cow and a comprehensive taste of pho possibilities, order #1: dac biet xe lua, translated "combination extra big bowl." Evidence for the Vietnamese affection for texture, this pho's meatless body parts provide more toothwork than they do flavor. Omosa, which looks like the fringe on a cowboy's white chaps, has just a bit of musty stomachy flavor and falls apart in your mouth like brittle crepe paper. Navel is milky white and tubular with a little crunch and a lot of give, like cartilage. Hunks of tendon look like opaque gelatin, taste like nothing really and bite like pearls of black tapioca at the bottom of a glass of bubble tea. For just beef, try #11, chin nam ve dgon, with well-done eye of round and rare slices of flank; #17, pho bo vien, contains noodles and spongy meatballs.

Along with a delicious jasmine version of sweet tea and a syrupy drink packed with dried longan fruit, Pho Quang also offers a couple of daily specials -- like grilled pork chops or chicken -- that are worth ordering for the broken rice (com tam) alone. Made from irregular bits of rice that chip off during harvesting or processing, broken rice presents thrilling, nutty mouthfuls that feels like sharp orzo or bloated cous-cous. Sides of fish sauce shot through with red chile glitter add flavoring.

Beef noodle soup is served from breakfast until 8 p.m., but the eating doesn't always stop when the waitress pulls the gates shut on her way out. After that, local regulars just off work gather around the community table with Budweisers and the day's catch bought from their fisherman friends. If you're one of the last lingering pho diners, and if you ask nicely, they might agree to let you taste their tender, soft-shell turtle coated with bits of ginger and lemongrass, or the raw slices of bluefin tuna dipped into a paste of wasabi and fish sauce. Desserts like these, following an exceptional bowl of pho, could tempt just about anyone to take up temporary residence at a table in the Vietnamese quarter of eastern New Orleans.

click to enlarge With only seven basic ingredients, the staff at PHO QUANG can offer more than 20 different varieties of the popular pho soup. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • With only seven basic ingredients, the staff at PHO QUANG can offer more than 20 different varieties of the popular pho soup.
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