By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 26, 2010; W39
The sign announcing Pho Viet quickens my pulse.
There are two reasons for this. In a city that's rich with assets, Vietnamese cooking is not one of them. With few exceptions, if you're craving a good banh mi or vermicelli bowl, you need to head to the suburbs, best of all Northern Virginia. Second, the name flags pho, the classic Vietnamese rice-noodle soup that's eaten indiscriminately throughout the day on its home turf and is so beloved it can attract a crowd to a restaurant all by itself.
Pho Viet, which opened in upper Columbia Heights last December, has one of the tidiest dining rooms I've encountered. Its faux-wood tabletops are spotless, as are the tile floor and the small counter prefaced by a handful of bubble gum-pink stools. Sit on a stool near the cash register, and you can catch a cooking show by peeking through the door into the kitchen; the graceful animation is courtesy of Phi Nguyen, who goes by the nickname "Nina." Settle for a table, and you'll see more of Nguyen's husband, Minh Chau, whom regulars know as "Mike." Except for Tuesdays, when Pho Viet is dark, the couple's presence is as constant as the bricks on the walls and the beaded curtain that separates dining room from restroom (also immaculate, by the way).
Previously, Chau, who left his native Vietnam in 1981, was an examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Nguyen, who came to the United States 16 years ago, has since worked retail, managed the office of a nonprofit and served as a prep cook at Raku in Dupont Circle. She's also a seamstress. (Guess what she does on Tuesdays?) The chef's teacher was her grandmother, known for cooking for home parties when she lived in a small town in southern Vietnam, where French and Indian influences surface in the form of curries, potatoes and pâtés.
Pho shares the uncomplicated menu with honey-kissed grilled pork, chicken and shrimp, offered with noodles or rice. But it is the soup that gets prominent billing, with 10 varieties. The differences are mostly minor, involving cuts of beef (eye of round, brisket, flank) and their degrees of doneness, although vegetarians will feel some love at the sight of a meatless broth culled from cabbage, carrot, broccoli and cauliflower. Entree No. 16, which fits in quartered beef meatballs, is as good as any pho here. It's pretty, too, with a snowy mound of vermicelli topped with rosy petals of raw beef tendon that darken and intensify in flavor as they make contact with the hot soup.
What makes the broth from this kitchen so intoxicating is its clarity. If it weren't for the fine white noodles occupying the center of the bowl, a diner could see straight to the bottom. Dip your spoon into the pale golden liquid, raise it to your lips and taste: Nguyen says it can take 12 hours for her to make the stock, which starts with beef bones and water and develops with onion and ginger, and I believe it. The result is limpid yet rich.
Some pho restaurants smell like butcher shops. The air at Pho Viet is free of any aroma, save when the bowls of soup and their fresh accessories are set on the table. The add-ons include cool bean sprouts, pungent cilantro and bright lime wedges, although the soup by itself is so compelling that the accents are almost unnecessary.
A handful of appetizers let you ease into lunch or dinner. Summer rolls are so sheer, you can see the shrimp, mint and bean sprouts that swell them. They are best dunked in the peanut sauce to the side, however. Papaya salad is cool and refreshing, but it, too, tilts subtle. To the rescue: a splash of fish sauce, which the chef personalizes with vinegar, red pepper and garlic. Egg rolls bulge with taro root and fresh-tasting carrots. The snack shows up piping hot -- and greasy.
Pho Viet's banh mi layers pink ham, fiery jalapeños, pickled carrot shreds, head cheese and cilantro on a crisp baguette slathered with butter. When banh mi is done right, there's no better sandwich on the planet. This isn't the most memorable of my career, but it's plenty satisfying, delivering the crunch and the zing and the fat I expect of a proper Vietnamese combination. Order the banh mi as a $7 platter, and you get a soft drink and battered sweet potato chips pulled hot from the fry pan. They are crisp and chewy (tempura comes to mind) and threaten to steal the show from the star. My biggest quibble with eating the dish is the flimsy napkins.
There's a homey quality to much of Pho Viet. The vegetable garnishes are cut a little large, and the low-ceilinged space could easily pass for the residence it once was. The range isn't deep, but the standards are high.
You might wish for a beer or a glass of wine with this cooking. Sadly, tea is as strong as the liquids get at Pho Viet. That won't stop some of us from imbibing with the restaurant's food. Pho Viet offers delivery (for a minimum of $15), but only within a one-mile range, although Nguyen says she makes exceptions for large parties with advance notice.
Now let me call my 50 best friends.
Two stars (Good)
Pho Viet, 3513 14th St. NW. 202-629-2839.
Open: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
Prices: appetizers $3.95 to $6.50, soup and rice plates $7 to $8.95
Sound check: 66 decibels/Conversation is easy.