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RESTAURANT REVIEW: Pho Bac

The steaming broths

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Pho Bac
Asian/Indian
Lunch and Dinner
Entrées: $5-$10
1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd.
849-6752
www.pho-bac.com

Old strip malls make for weird restaurants but also contain some of the most interesting eateries in the culinary landscape; the rent is relatively cheap and low overhead means lots of wild experimentation. If you're willing to endure the quirky nature of the beast, then rich rewards can often be located in the strangest of places. Tucked away in the Fairmont Shopping Center off Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, Pho Bac, whose owner also runs the Kim Long noodle house in N. Charleston, really does only one thing well — they make pho; and for the low prices they charge, they better hope the rent collector doesn't come calling anytime soon.

Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, may just be one of the most underappreciated gastronomic marvels in the world. It starts with the preparation of broth, an exotic amalgamation of gelatinous beef and spices that each great pho master tends to keep the details of to themselves. Originating in North Vietnam, the broth preparation in its purest form receives the moniker "Pho Bac" (it seems that Southern Vietnam celebrated its brief respite from Communist rule by spicing up the dish with all manner of additions).

Pho Bac specializes in the eponymous Northern version and, although I am no expert on pho, serves one of the best I have ever tasted. It comes in several varieties, each differentiated by diverse garnishments and protein additions. The "Pho Tái" ($6.95), or "Rare Beef Slices Rice Noodle Soup," follows the most traditional path. Born in the 19th century, its obscure roots probably lie in the confluence of French colonial domination of the Vietnamese and the traditional Asian palate of exotic spice — ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and coriander. There is even some speculation that pho, pronounced "fuh," may be a Southeast Asian bastardization of the equally down-home French meat boil "Pot-au-Feu."

No matter the origin, Pho Bac's version sports a rather addictive broth, full of the requisite slivers of scallions and paper thin slices of top round dropped into the hot broth just long enough to become opaque. Rice noodles squirm at the bottom of the bowl, eager to convey the beefy richness of each bite. An accompanying small plate of limes, cilantro, Thai basil, and bean sprouts gives diners the ability to fine tune the broth at the table. Other examples of pho — "Pho Gá" ($6.95) served with chicken, "Pho Tôm" ($8.95) served with shrimp (hint: add some Sriracha sauce for a great kick), and "Pho Bô Viên" ($6.95) served with beef meatballs — all deserve a standing ovation. They are the perfect comfort foods, rich and satisfying in a deep, mystical sense. A steaming bowl of this stuff beats a spa facial any day of the week. I also particularly enjoy their "Bún," or vermicelli noodle salad. It's a cold bowl of noodles topped with a dizzying array of exotic herbs, beef, pork, and seafood embellishments. Light but not wimpy, these salads, donned with a shower of spicy chili sauce, also provide an incredible complexity of flavor.

It's a good thing, because to get at one of these bowls of pho or cool salads requires the patience of Job. Pho Bac makes the state government look like an efficient, well-oiled machine. Ordering a dish means conversing with staff members who seemingly cannot read or write in English. Bowls of pho ordered as beef arrive as chicken. Even an attempt at numbering the dishes on the menu cannot curtail the confusion. The luck of the draw sometimes determines what you might end up eating — and I have never dined there without the waitstaff enlisting the help of the owner in deciphering what exactly I was trying to order (even then, they don't always get it right).

Fortunately, this ineptness comes tempered with a gracious friendliness and a desire to educate the patron about what pho is and how important it is to the Vietnamese tradition. They school patrons in how to mix and pour a delicious Vietnamese ice coffee ($3), what traditional condiments should be added to a steaming bowl, and even offer special, more inventive broths to those who show an interest in such things — all of the things that make ethnic eateries fun, exciting, and exasperating at times.

It is a shame that they have to do anything besides showcase their signature dishes. It seems that pho and bún are not exactly setting the Mt. Pleasant world on fire. I have always been the only customer in the joint. This seems to make other dishes, those whose ingredients do not "hold" as well, more or less inferior. The spring rolls are flabby, grilled meats tough and overdone, and an avocado shake takes 30 minutes to arrive because the owner (who also does a lot of the cooking) has to run to the grocery store to pick up fresh product. Dishes are served at an excruciatingly slow clip, but I keep going back — to get my pho fix, to try other combinations of meat and spice, to get one more taste of what is a truly great dish — lest it be gone forever the next time I arrive.

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