Pho 14

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

The early-April opening of this small Vietnamese restaurant was met with great anticipation in hipster-trodden Columbia Heights. Ever since Prince of Petworth blogger Dan Silverman began posting news of Pho 14's imminent arrival, commenters have been chiming in with variations on a theme: "Pho-nominal news!"

Owner Phong Hoang says he was surprised by the attention. The 45-year-old Vietnamese native has been living in the Falls Church area since moving from the Southeast Asian country 23 years ago. His new 50-seat venture is all about family, with recipes, labor and some financial help coming from relatives.

Pho, a Vietnamese soup with rice noodles, aromatic spices and various meats, is the centerpiece of the restaurant's menu.

When ordered for carryout, the dish is divided among several containers to ensure that the meat and vegetables don't overcook in the hot broth: One plastic bowl holds onion slices, noodles and any of the 15-plus combinations of steak, brisket, tendon and tripe available. Another vessel contains a generous serving of the dark broth, deeply fragrant with the scent of anise. Combine these two and top with fixings from a bag packed with bean sprouts, hot pepper slices, lime slices, Asian basil and a small cup of hoisin with hot sauce.

It's a generous portion for the price (regular, $7.95; large, $8.95). The Bo Vien meatball soup ($7.95) is deeply flavored, but be advised that the spheres may have chunks of gelatinous gristle. Expect a 50-cent surcharge on carryout to defray the cost of the containers (and a bit of a wait when you order takeout).

We found other great items on the menu. The filling Bun Chay ($8.95) is a vermicelli noodle dish topped with crunchy and well-seasoned stir-fried vegetables and tofu. The Banh Mi Heo Nuong ($8.95) has spicy grilled pork cooled with stacks of cabbage, cilantro and cucumber on a crisp baguette. Both the veggie-packed spring rolls and the egg rolls ($3.95 for two) tasted light and fresh, even after a 30-minute car ride.

When ordered to go, iced coffees and fruit-flavored smoothies are presented over crushed ice in cups sealed with a plastic film featuring cartoon pictures, including, inexplicably, a likeness of former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.

The machine that seals the drinks "is a Taiwanese thing, but a lot of Vietnamese shops in Eden Center use it and recommended it," says Hoang. The custard apple smoothie ($3.50) is perhaps too sweet for mealtime but makes a lovely post-dinner drink.

Drinks come with a fat straw capable of handling the thickest bubble teas. Those aren't yet available at Pho 14, but Hoang says they will be soon, along with delivery service and new dishes.

-- Julia Beizer (Good to Go, April 15, 2008)