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Go With the Pho

[whitespace] Egg rolls, fried rice and, yes, noodles are tops at Santa Clara's Pho #1

By Andrew X. Pham

BARGAIN-PRICED Vietnamese grub has come to the border of Cupertino and Santa Clara. Residents in this neck of the valley can savor the tastes of Little Saigon at their own neighbor hood pho-ery. Scrubbed down but still ramshackle, Pho #1 Noodle House boasts an ambitious menu of nearly 100 Vietnamese and Chinese items. Other than its namesake noodle dish, the diner serves appetizers, seafood soups, curries, porridge, vegetarian entrees, vermicelli combinations, meat plates, rice plates, chow mein, fried rice, firepots and house specialties.

Around lunchtime, Pho #1 draws in a steady trickle from the mainstream. Fear not the crowds; this is a two-holes-in-the-wall joint. The second room opens up before elbow room reaches sardine status. Each dining area is outfitted with tables topped with white polyester cloth and glass, flanked by naugahyde bistro chairs. Bare florescent bulbs, walls in need of paint and a fuzzy television serve as ambience; the crowds come for the prices, not the decor. An appetizer, a main entrée and dessert hover right around $10 per person.

An order of egg rolls ($1.99) or "steam rolls" (spring rolls, $1.99) usually sums up a Vietnamese restaurant straight away. Pho #1's may officially be dubbed the smallest Vietnamese egg rolls in history, roughly finger width--the size of a Filipino lumpia. Bound in the thick, Chinese-style rice wonton wrappers, the egg rolls hide a not-unpleasant combination of stuffing. Cabbage, while keeping the rolls cheap, adds a nice alternative flavor. Accompanied by the usual peanut dipping sauce, the steam rolls--loosely packed with shrimp, pork, vermicelli and vegetables--rate fresh and fair.

Combination fried rice ($5.25) yields a heap of separated grains, faintly fish-sweet, toppled over beef, pork, shrimp, calamari and scallops. Less oily than its Chinese cousin, Vietnamese fried rice heralds a lighter taste. A rice paper dish of grilled pork, vegetables, fish sauce and rice vermicelli ($5.99) arrives with "some assembly required," usually a welcome tableside amusement. Unfortunately, the overly wet rice paper makes wrapping a sticky chore. The pork, a little tough but flavorful, is twice grilled.

Some of the sure winners are the grilled chicken rice plate, the squid sautéed with lemongrass and the pan-fried pompano over rice, each hovering right around the $5 mark. Big appetites and small budgets could find no better haven than this mom-and-pop grub shack.

But what of the pho? With every noodle bar claiming to be number one, Pho #1 ranks above average ($3.75 small, $4.15 medium). Perfectly cooked noodles swim in a clear, full broth. High-quality beef tops off the generous bowl. Fresh Vietnamese basil, lime and bean sprouts heighten the soup's texture. The pho's only downfall is the overuse of that "secret ingredient" Vietnamese call sweet powder, infamously known as monosodium glutamate. More beef bone in the stock would go a long way toward awarding Pho #1 its title.

Small, homey and quadrilingual (Vietnamese, Chinese, English and French), this diner is a good and friendly destination when one's stomach screams for a three-course meal but one's wallet has but $10.


Pho #1 Noodle House is located at 5025 Stevens Creek Blvd. in Santa Clara (408/249-1111). Open seven days a week, 10:30am-9pm.

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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