Pho calls

If I lived somewhere in the middle of nowhere I would be jumping for joy at the arrival of Pho Hoa, the new Vietnamese soup emporium that has moved in to the Primrose Avenue spot vacated by the Golden Lake restaurant. But with the many nearby family-owned Vietnamese eateries (including Pho 88, another soup place a scant 1.2 miles away), the addition of a franchise seems redundant. Truth is, a franchise is a relatively risk-free way of opening a new restaurant and sharing the company's national advertising.

There are more than 90 other Pho Hoas and sister Pho Cong Lys, from California to Boston and Ontario to Kuala Lumpur. The chain emphasizes the "Health Conscious Choice" of its broth-based dishes. And although I could not find any exact nutritional information, there doesn't seem to be much danger in the beef and chicken consommés, with pieces of meat, noodles and a whole bunch of vegetables. A bowl here is sort of like having a soup, salad and main course all at once.

The sign looming over Pho Hoa reads, "The best Vietnamese food in town," and I can undeniably proclaim, "Not in this town." But the food ain't bad, and judging by the mostly Vietnamese clientele, rather authentic. The clear soup bases of beef or chicken are slow-simmered and delicately seasoned, even the beef broth is a lustrous golden color. The bowls come large ($5.50) and even larger ($6.50), loaded with rice noodles, mushrooms, and in the case of the chicken pho, bits of cauliflower and broccoli. The pho do bien chua cay (seafood soup, $6.50) finds squid, tender scallops and a bit of fish floating amongst the noodles, a savory combination that unfortunately included the dreaded "fake crab." Tell them to leave it out if at all possible.

The big adventure is the beef soup (which is what "pho" means). To the basic dish is added any number of beef cuts, from steak, brisket and meatballs ("For Beginners" on the menu) to tendon, bible tripe (so named because it looks like the pages of a book) and flank steak, either "fatty" or "crunchy" (cooked by the heat of the soup or well-done).

I will enthusiastically recommend the blended drinks, in particular the avocado one ($3.25). It looked like soft-serve pistachio ice cream and tasted like frozen guacamole.

The etiquette of pho calls for an abundance of seasoning and supplementing. There's hoisin sauce for a sweet and spicy kick of garlic and soy; sesame oil for a mellow fragrance; basil leaves, coriander, bean sprouts and jalapeños for crunch, bite and heat; and the ever-present red chili sauce. Try being adventurous and slurp it down -- it's OK to slurp here.

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