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Friendly Pho

[whitespace] A great dish of Vietnamese noodles says, 'Hey, heaven can wait'

By Andrew X. Pham

FOLKS INTRODUCING FRIENDS to pho often have a difficult time describing this special national food of Vietnam. I like to imagine pho as the sassy cousin of the Japanese udon. First, take those fat, rice-based Japanese noodles and flatten them into the shape of linguine. Now take the clear, pristine broth and sex it up with exotic perfumes of star anise, fennel seed, cassia and wild pepper. And yes, of course, give it some serious soul with beef stock. Make it deliciously heathen and tropical with fistfuls of fresh bean sprouts, Asian basil, onion, cilantro, scallion and a good squeeze of lime. Dress it in a gossamer gown of beef scarves as thin and supple as satin. Give it fire with slices of chile peppers. Make it earthy with a shot of bean paste (personal preference here). Oh-ho--what have we here but a bowl of something that says: "Hey, heaven can wait."

Santa Clara's Pho Cuong #4 (a.k.a. "G4," according to its malfunctioning neon marquee) serves a good bowl of beef noodle soup. In a chain of four, the only one not located in San Jose, this brightly lit diner soups up some of the best al dente rice noodles in Santa Clara County. Topping choices include rare deli-cut eye of round, cooked beef brisket, flank steak, tendon and tripe. G4's broth rates above average in clarity and body.

Just two miles south on El Camino Real, another Vietnamese diner offers a dry alternative to pho. As plain as a high school cafeteria, Hue's is best summarized as a gentle introduction to Vietnamese cuisine.

The best entrees on Hue's menu are bun ($4.50-$6.95), vermicelli rice noodles, sans broth, bowled up with various toppings of grilled meats (beef, pork or shrimp marinated in garlic, fish sauce and sugar), roasted peanuts and pickles. Sides of fresh lettuce, mint, cucumbers and bean sprouts accompany each bowl. The dipping sauce is a mild chile fish sauce sharpened with a touch of lime. The meats are served hot off the grill, the noodles lukewarm. Very simple but flavorful, bun tend to make lighter meals than pho.

But the real reasons for visiting Hue's can be found in the back of the menu under "Hue's Specialties"--unique dishes from central Vietnam. Banh beo ($2.50) are rice dumplings, round and flat like tiny saucers, smeared with split yellow bean paste and sprinkled with orangy shrimp powder. The dumplings have a resilient texture, something between chewy and al dente. Served with fish sauce, these make an excellent appetizer, good with beer (domestic $2, imported $2.50).

Nothing prepares a person for his first bite of banh bot loc ($3), shrimp and pork tapioca dumplings. Chewy, fatty and quite savory when dipped in fish sauce, this dumpling is a favorite Vietnamese snack. For something very texturally bizarre, try banh ram it ($3), which are mini sandwiches--crunchy deep-fried rice buns with a chewy rice cake center. All these dishes double well as appetizers.

With tasty food at bargain prices, Pho Cuong and Hue's are two good excuses for noodling around on El Camino Real.

Pho Cuong #4 is located at 1028 El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, 408/730-9776.

Hue's is located at 2690 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, 408/984-6309.

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From the April 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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