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TASTE: Let Saigons Be Saigons

Forget the faux pho in other Vietnamese joints, Pho Sai Gon 8’s is the best

Max Jacobson

Actually, I bypassed the place several times before stopping in. But last month, my friend Chi, who is a Vietnamese-American woman, and I had lunch there, and I've been a regular ever since.

I've had plenty of company. This place is always packed at lunch, mostly with families and local Vietnamese businessmen. It's a large, spacious room with art-filled beige walls, baskets of faux Indochinese fruits and the requisite laughing Buddhas by the register. On the classy marble-topped tables, there are those squeeze bottles of Sriracha chili sauce and piles of wrapped chopsticks.

The extensive menu is packed with delicious things you've probably never tasted before, such as Ninh Hoa pork sausage rolls, barbecued shrimp on sugar cane and grilled-lemongrass sliced beef, all of which are served with a pile of herbs, condiments and other flavor enhancements, at no extra charge.

If you ask nicely, you can have a wonderful raw vegetable called rau ram, which has no English equivalent. And if you ask extra nicely, they might even bring you some mam tom, a purplish, fermented-shrimp paste that is de rigueur with bun bo Hue, a spicy soup that is usually made with cubes of congealed pork blood, although not around here. But still, the waiter is obliged to wrinkle his nose and tell you that you won't like it.

Aww, what does he know? The Ninh Hoa sausage rolls actually get their own dipping sauce made from ground shrimp, and they are amazing. Picture a pair of cylindrical Asian wraps stuffed with raw vegetables, long strips of cooked sausage and a crispy, fried-flour strip to give it texture. Dip the rolls in the sauce or eat them with that chili sauce on the tables. Either way, you win.

Cha gio, Vietnamese egg rolls, are in my mind the king of all egg rolls. These are also long and cylindrical, deep-fried to a wicked crunch, with a dense ground-pork, crab-meat and rice-noodle filling. These are meant to be eaten taco-style, in the hollow of a lettuce leaf, accompanied by the ubiquitous pickled carrot and radish you find with many dishes here. There is also sweet, vinegar-based dipping sauce.

But it's pho (pronounce it "fuh") you've come for, and it's pho you will eat. Most of the pho soups in this town sink due to a broth that tastes as if it were made from a soup base. Not this one. The secret of a good pho broth is slow, often overnight cooking, and the addition of bones, tendon, marrow and whatever else can be culled from Elsie. The best choice for beginners is pho dac biet, literally "special pho." Here you get the noodles topped with round steak, skirt steak and other cuts. For $1.50, you can add those bo vien, crunchy meatballs that are an acquired taste for the non-Vietnamese palate. There is also hu tieu, rice or egg noodles that can be eaten topped with beef, chicken or cuts of pork, normally the shank. None of these dishes, I might add, is over $7.

Com dia, or composed rice plates, are also a draw here. Com bo luc lac, one of the most popular items on the menu, is tenderloin beef cubes sautéed with onions and garlic, served over steamed rice. Com ga roti is a whole Cornish game hen roasted with spices, while my personal fave for lunch, com suon bi cha, provides a grilled pork chop, steamed egg cake and shredded pork, skin on, over steamed rice. It's a win/win proposition.

I can't say that I am much for Vietnamese desserts, which are basically glasses filled with beans, such as red beans, mung beans, lotus seeds and something called grass jelly (don't bother asking), but I do love a durian smoothie, essentially a milkshake made with shaved ice, a splash of milk and pureed durian, a notoriously stinky fruit that writer Anthony Burgess once described as having the flavor of pineapple mousse, eaten in a sewer.

And the Vietnamese iced coffee, which comes in a filter pot that you let drip out onto a layer of sweetened condensed milk, before pouring over ice, is fabulous, as is the fresh lemon soda, which is really made from limes. Don't let the waiter talk you out of it.

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