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Pho Danh: New In Pho 

A noodle soup specialist thrives in a cluster of Vietnamese food stores.

A billboard floating above a patch of parking lots and beige strip malls on Behrman Highway in Gretna promotes Harrah's Casino to anyone driving past who can read the Vietnamese in which the words are written. Around here, that adds up to quite a few people.

This cluster of shops and stores is bustling, and much of it is based around food. The lynchpin is Hong Kong Market, a one-time Wal-Mart store that is now a super-sized Asian grocery. Nearby, there is Panda King, a huge pan-Asian/American buffet restaurant with steam trays of everything from beef tripe in black bean sauce to French fries and California rolls, and Phoenix, a new Vietnamese restaurant with a road map-style menu to challenge the Gretna stalwarts Kim Son and Nine Roses in its length and depth. Then there are the specialists: Chau Sandwiches is a tiny storefront shop devoted to the Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi, and Mr. Bubbles serves an array of frozen bubble tea drinks. And there's my favorite specialist of all, the Vietnamese noodle shop Pho Danh, a glassed-in dining room located inside the atrium leading to Hong Kong Market that feels very much like the community cafeteria for this whole suburban shopping area.

Pho Danh's menu lists 29 different soups, although most of them rely on a few cornerstone broths and differ only in the combinations of meats added. My go-to soup at any pho joint " my universal basis for comparison " is pho tai bo vien, which combines thin sheets of steak and meatballs. Pho Danh's version is superlative, and I would put it up against my perennial favorites at Pho Tau Bay and Tan Dinh, two other Gretna pho specialists.

The soup arrives with the steak still vividly pink and floating on the strongly anise- and ginger-flavored broth with a nest of thin rice noodles coiled beneath the surface. The hot broth finishes the job of cooking the meat in about the same time it takes to augment the soup from a side plate overflowing with fresh bean sprouts, basil on the stem, lime and slivers of jalapeño.

The chicken soup, called pho ga, has a very strong chicken-broth flavor, and the noodles, onions and fresh green herbs have plenty of company from both white and dark meat. All of it is roughly cut up in large, irregular chunks and strewn with connective tissue as a final reassurance that this is not a pho ga made with cold cuts or bland processed breast meat, as is sometimes the case.

A quite different rendition of beef noodle soup available here is bun bo binh dinh, a variant on the bun bo Hue, a regional specialty from Vietnam's ancient royal city. Unlike pho, this soup is spicy even before you add any garnishes and sauces. The noodles are thick like spaghetti; beef slices are dark and rich, and the soup also includes a few floating pads of liver. Among the garnishes for bun bo binh dinh is a pile of shredded cabbage, which adds considerable crunch, and a tiny silver pot of an intense, purple fish paste as pungent as Vegemite.

The English descriptions on the menu are slim, and in these cases I have always found it helpful to take a long look around the room to size up what other customers are eating. By this approach I discovered the omnibus soups down near the end of Pho Danh's menu " combinations of chicken, pork and shrimp in light, clear broths with extravagant tangles of springy, nutty noodles. All of these soups range in size from small to extra large, which comes in a bowl so big you could practically float a pony keg in it.

The goi cuon " spring rolls of rice noodles, pork, shrimp and lettuce wrapped in thin rice paper " is the only appetizer, but the dish could easily furnish a light meal. They come three to an order and are exceptionally plump and fresh. The thin sheet of roasted pork is laced with a ribbon of clear fat, which explains its full flavor, and the shrimp have the bright color and firm texture of good local specimens.

Pho Danh has a pretty adventurous list of beverages as well. From iced tea and da chanh, a mixture of club soda and lemon, the options quickly get more exotic. To say a slushy concoction described on the menu as "sour soup mix drink" was better than it sounded seems like faint praise. I admit my first slurp of this thick-as-a-smoothie beverage was braced with trepidation, but it turned out to taste a lot like sour, frozen yogurt sweetened by tiny shreds of pineapple.

It took somewhat longer to warm up to the desserts, described here as puddings. An order of the che dau do, or red bean pudding, produced a parfait glass filled with beans in sweet condensed milk with gummy strands of green and white jelly and a summit of crushed ice. On a hot day it might hit the spot, but I don't think the local gelato craze is in danger of losing much market share to Vietnamese puddings anytime soon.

click to enlarge Bun bo binh dinh is a soup made with beef, liver and noodles and served with fresh cabbage to mix in on top. - IAN MCNULTY
  • Ian McNulty
  • Bun bo binh dinh is a soup made with beef, liver and noodles and served with fresh cabbage to mix in on top.
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