Vietnamese with a Chinese twist 

Pho-tastic

click to enlarge pho_hang_011716-8566.jpg

Scott Spellman

Try finding parking in this congested stripmall along Dequindre and 13 Mile Roads and you'll quickly realize what you're dealing with. With Kim Nhung Superfood as the shopping center's anchor, families from all around flock to this intersection to stock up on Vietnamese grocery staples. Off to the side of the popular market is Pho Hang, one of many of the classic pho joints in Madison Heights' large immigrant community.

Here you'll also find a heavy influence in Chinese cuisine, giving variety to dinner parties who may not partake in the generous noodle bowls the place is famous for. In fact, noodles are served here in a number of manners, ranging from chow mein-style, vermicelli in both entree and soup form, and of course the tried and true nearly translucent rice noodles that make up the therapeutic pho.

While Detroit proper is seeing a number of Asian-inspired dishes popping up on new restaurant menus, if you're looking for some of the best, your surest bet is to make it to Madison Heights. The influence dates back some 40-plus years with the boom of the nail salon industry, which served as a means of employing the many Vietnamese refugees who made their way all over the U.S., including metro Detroit. The result: a deeply ingrained network of immigrant-owned shops and restaurants, with roots from Vietnam and other Asian countries.

Enter Pho Hang and you're immediately greeted by an eager hostess who gets right to asking if you would like water or tea. The decor is simple, with fake flowers draping the walls, suggesting the place serves as pure utility for diners looking for their fix.

The first thing we notice on the menu is the pho is prepared with chicken broth, instead of the more typical beef found in other places. Combined with the essence of ginger and clove, the chicken variation makes for a lighter taste. To keep with the poultry, our dining guest ordered his with chicken, but meat also comes in combinations of sliced rib eye, beef balls, and other beef-based protein. Our companion said the chicken came dark and fatty, making for a better soup. Topped with fresh mint, bean sprouts, basil, lime, and the requisite squirts of hoisin and Sriracha sauces (just a tad, not to outshine the clear broth), the meal (a heaping bowl of the stuff is plenty enough to serve as a satisfying meal) offers a satisfying experience. Spring rolls, with shrimp and pork wrapped tightly in rice paper, come with a tasty side of peanut sauce.

We sampled another noodle soup traditional in the French-inspired Vietnamese cuisine — Bun bo; Hue, made with thin rice vermicelli noodles. We ordered it with duck leg. The duck, bone-in, came out bountiful, so much so that we opted for scooping it up with a China spoon and then digging in with our hands. The meat has a thick texture, skin dark and with a slight odor, but no less delicious. The soup comes with same do-it-yourself garnish, but also a small bowl of fiery chili sauce, giving the diner control over how much heat will go into the meal. We indulged in ours sparingly, dipping our spoon into the hot sauce before slurping up each bite.

As for those who find pho or other noodle soups intimidating, the menu has a dedicated space of Chinese fried rice dishes. We ordered one with heavenly marinated beef cubes. The protein came out tender, if not a little dry, but with a sweet and slightly spicy quality. The rice though is supreme, with a bit of crispiness and a robust garlicky flavor. If leftovers are your thing, the rice dish makes the perfect late night snack.

To drink, we opted for a kettle of hot tea, which has a soothing spice to it.

As for service, after the initial cheery greeting, we were left feeling ignored at times, though it was clear many of the workers were busy cleaning and placing orders in the back of the house. During one visit, a few others sat at a table next to the kitchen, eating their own meals after the busy Sunday lunch crowd dwindled, not an uncommon sight for an independently owned establishment. If this is the case when you go, don't be afraid to give a polite holler at the server, who will get you to-go boxes and bring the check with courtesy and a smile.

We've had the chance to try three pho houses in Madison Heights, each with their own specialty. While many of the establishments offer Chinese cuisine, the Vietnamese menu is primarily the star of the show. Pho Que Huong serves banh mi, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich served in a French baguette. Straight-ahead pho is found at Thuy Trang. We've also indulged in some of the newer places that have opened in recent years in Detroit. Johnny Noodle King doesn't pretend to play strictly by the rules of traditional noodle soup-making. And Pho Lucky, no less authentic as any of the spots that line John R or Dequindre, gives diners the luxury of a liquor license. What makes Pho Hang stand out to us is the variety, paying equal amount of care for every variety of food, to give a little something for everyone.

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