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Picture Mom standing at the stove, stirring a large pot of soup, waiting for Dad's arrival. The kids are gathered in the kitchen, inhaling the intoxicating aromas of long-simmered chicken, fresh vegetables, and herbs. The table is set for the family meal, which provides a chance to relax, reconnect, and bond. Everyone is hungry, expectant. They can't wait.
In the real world, Mom probably hasn't cooked anything more complicated than Lean Cuisine since she dropped her last little darling. Dad is likely stuck in traffic, and when he gets home, all he wants is a double martini. The kids live on greasy burgers, even greasier French fries, and stuff dispensed from vending machines that has the nutritional value of the plastic in which it's wrapped.
In the real world, if you want home cooking, you're not likely to get it at home.
That's why the real world needs restaurants like Pho Thang.
The soups, salads, and noodle dishes at this no-frills Vietnamese restaurant are all about the joys of simple, delicious, unassuming home cooking. Rich, savory stocks; the pungent tang of mint and cilantro and Thai basil; the aromas of roast duck, simmered chicken, and grilled pork; the crisp, clean flavor of fresh vegetables; the bracing undercurrents of fish sauce, chilies, lemongrass, and curry paste.
And it's cheap. Seven bucks brings a bowl of steaming, aromatic pho the size of a small birdbath. Another buck buys the pho special the luscious broth bulked with slices of slippery rice noodles, in addition to well-cooked yet tender flank steak, tripe, and shaved rare beef that floats on top like a pink rose. Add bean sprouts, a few leaves of aniselike Thai basil, some sliced jalapeños, and a squirt of fresh lime, and you've got a savory and satisfying soup.
A variation on pho, called mi, substitutes egg noodles for those made from rice flour and is served with the usual garnishing suspects. The protein, in this case, is a generous complement of bone-in roast duck with most of the fat rendered away but all the flavor left behind.
Nonsoup entrées include tangy lemongrass chicken, small chunks that tend to dry out on their bed of squiggly rice vermicelli.
You can make a meal out of starters too. Something called "pork rolling cake" is actually a casingless pork sausage, finely ground and mild-tasting, with the firm, bouncy texture reminiscent of boudin blanc. It's thinly sliced and arranged around a small mountain of shredded vegetables that conceals steamed rice paper rolls stuffed with bits of roast pork. Fold a slice of sausage and some veggie salad into a big leaf of romaine and dip the entire package into a sweet-spicy-salty-garlicky nuoc cham.
The same process works its culinary magic on a terrific rice pancake, which is actually more like a thick crêpe the size of a manhole cover, packed with roast pork, finger-size shrimp, bean sprouts, and onions. Wrapped in lettuce with basil, cilantro, and mint, and dredged in nuoc cham, it sets off a happy dance of contrasting flavors and textures.
You don't get much in the way of atmosphere with your food. The dining room is small and cramped with four (blessedly muted) television sets. To drink there's red, white, and pink plonk; a short roster of domestic and imported beers; and some fruit shakes nothing too fancy. But who cares? You're here for good home cooking.
Even if you're not at home.