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The Writing on the Wall 

If you want to go off the menu at PHO SON, get a group, call ahead and sample the restaurant's more traditional Vietnamese dishes.

The woman in charge of Pho Son's dining room hovered, her facial expressions alternating between bemusement and concern. Two pushed-together tables held enough food and beer to fill all seven of us twice; twin condiment caddies stocked with hoisin, fish and chile sauces were parked at the extremities, should any dish lack a dimension of flavor. Still, she lingered. "I've never seen ... people ... like you ... eat food like that," she finally said with a laugh.

It had taken considerable effort to coordinate this meal.

Pho Son's shiny color brochure of a menu is a pictorial guide to dishes and ingredients, all translated into English. There's even a letter-coded chart for ordering pho "your own way." This demystifies the house specialty, Vietnamese noodle soup, and breaks down its myriad preparations into easily communicated instructions: "Khong da -- Skinless Chicken"; "Tai song -- Very Rare Meat"; or "N.Beo H. Tran -- Scallion Heads Rich Broth." It's a great menu.

But on my first visit to Pho Son, what caught my eye was another menu, hand-written in Vietnamese and taped to the wall. "No, that's food for drinking beer," pronounced the server, as if that precluded me from ordering it. Sadly, it actually did. The clock hadn't yet struck noon, so I settled for the jet-fueled Vietnamese iced coffee and a halfhearted vermicelli bowl containing clumpy noodles, a sorry sprinkling of herbs, shrimp and teriyaki-flavored charred pork.

I adapted with a proactive strategy on the next visit, ordering a round of Heinekens before broaching the hand-written beer food menu. "No, no, no!" the server laughed when I requested the first item, tiet canh, "You can't eat that." But I'm drinking beer. "That's duck blood," she grimaced, pointing to the veins in her arm. No problem, I pleaded, I eat duck blood all the time. She remained steadfast, shaking her head like a mother hiding the candy. And besides, she added, every dish on that menu serves six people and must be ordered ahead of time.

Again I settled, this time for pho ga my way: all-white chicken and slippery vermicelli noodles drifting in a clear, rich broth with herbs and vinegar onions. The pho tai (beef noodle soup), made with limpid beef broth, needed more help from the mung bean sprouts and anise-stinging basil that accompany every pho order. The greatest discovery on this visit, bun bo hue, was a fiery, red chile-stained lemongrass broth containing meatier noodles, cooked tablets of blood and assorted unidentifiable forms of beef. You cool this odd but amazing traditional soup by tossing in handfuls of raw red cabbage, bean sprouts and a cinnaminty, shiso-like leaf that the staff just calls "mint."

On my third visit, they had no choice. I brought six people. We ordered ahead. It took 20 minutes and a dozen round trips from the kitchen to fill our tables with vast bowls of sticky rice and vermicelli noodles, platters of fresh basil stems, minced ginger and red chiles steeping in fish sauce, and variously sized bowls for dipping sauces and individual portioning. We ordered fresh-squeezed orange juice and a green battalion of Heineken bottles.

The most stunning of the four forbidden dishes we tried turned out to be a room temperature sort-of salad (be thui) involving thin, ragged slices of rare veal, ginger shards and herbs, all stuck with a mosaic of sesame seeds. The runner-up dish -- five tender quail (bia) split in half and shellacked with a sweet-salty glaze -- made fantastic finger food and cost little more than a pile of Buffalo wings. The only bummer was goi ga, a chicken and cabbage salad that's common in Vietnamese restaurants but not commonly so tough to chew.

Finally, that duck blood dish was like standing on tiptoes at the edge of the Grand Canyon: beautiful and terrifying. Chewy nubbins of duck, fresh ginger and forest-green herbs held together on a shallow platter in a barely set, cranberry-colored duck blood gelatin. If the brilliant red color appeared unnatural, the blood revealed itself by depositing a thick varnish and an all-too-real metallic aftertaste on the tongue.

As with pho, the deliciousness of many Vietnamese dishes ultimately depends upon how you doctor them with accompanying fresh herbs, lime wedges and various sauces. We poured ginger fish sauce over the ragged veal salad and dipped the delicate quail halves into a mixture of salt, pepper and lime juice. One server had us stir basil, lime juice and lots more ginger fish sauce into the duck. "It will make you strong," he said, which just might be duck blood's strongest selling point.

For dessert on this third visit, rather than the soursop shakes or icy concoctions of coconut cream and sweet beans, we received a gratis bowl of velveteen rice soup to be ladled over raw bean sprouts. Caramelized shallots trapped in the soup's billowing steam released a sweet, reassuring perfume. By this time, Pho Son's workers had gathered around their own meal at a back table. They no longer fussed or fretted. And why should they? Anyone -- even people like us -- can appreciate a fine meal, no matter in what language it's written.

click to enlarge PHO SON regulars love to cool off the popular bun - bo hue (lemon grass beef soup) by adding raw red - cabbage, bean sprouts and a "mint" leaf.
  • PHO SON regulars love to cool off the popular bun bo hue (lemon grass beef soup) by adding raw red cabbage, bean sprouts and a "mint" leaf.


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