Bowled over

I've written many times about a certain Vietnamese restaurant that's serene and graceful, an island of tranquillity where even the design of the chopstick rests contributes to the feeling of calm. That's Annam, in Dearborn.

Oddly, it's almost a relief to write about a Vietnamese place that's more like real life: Formica tables, a TV on the wall, those pesky miniature napkins that do so little good, and families with kids peeking over the backs of their chairs at the strangers at the next table.

That's Pho Hang, a strip-mall storefront on an unlovely strip of Dequindre Road. If the ratio of Vietnamese immigrant customers to native-born Americans is far higher at Pho Hang than at Annam, that could be because so many Vietnamese people live in and around Madison Heights and Warren, or it could be because 31 of Pho Hang's generous entrées can be had for $6, 11 cost $7 and only 14 cost $8 or more.

Diners find the real deal at Pho Hang, whose cooks come from the southern part of the country. They'll get the lightness and, yes, grace of Vietnamese soups, with their strong yet clear broths and arrays of fresh garnishes. They'll find pork marinated in fish sauce and other sauces and baked in a clay pot. And they can try exotic fruit shakes of soursop, jackfruit, lychee and durian that rouse taste buds Westerners didn't even know were there. The feel overall is fresh, light, never oily.

Let's start with pho, a beef-and-rice-noodle soup that is the biggest seller at Pho Hang and was invented only about a hundred years ago, in the northern part of Vietnam. It's thought that the charred onion and ginger used in pho come from the French influence there. Beef bones are boiled for hours, and the broth skimmed and skimmed again to produce the desired clarity.

Pho Hang offers eight versions of pho, in big flowered china bowls. Each involves a different combination of rare beef flank, tendon, meatballs or tripe. Cooked rice noodles are added to the broth only at the last minute, yet they soak up the meat essence unreservedly, so that a mouthful of noodles is as beefy and satisfying as is the animal protein itself. The broth also includes an onion kick from the scallions that are added.

On the side, you get a plate of bean sprouts, basil leaves and a lime wedge, to add at your own pace. The crunch of the sprouts and the bite of the basil are agreeable but really not essential. In fact, those from northern Vietnam, according to my sources, consider a gussied-up pho inauthentic, preferring a more austere bowl that relies on the harmony of the basic ingredients. You certainly don't need to squirt on any of the ubiquitous hoisin sauce or sriracha sauce (hot chilis) that sit on the table in big squeeze bottles.

Either way, use chopsticks for the noodles and meat and a spoon to slurp up the broth. I defy any omnivore not to like this dish.

Another good soup is mi vit tiem, made with wiry egg noodles and crisp-skinned duck, big chunks of bok choy and a touch of cilantro.

Very different and also frequently ordered is com suon bi cha trung. This plate consists of a big square pork chop that's exceptionally tender and tastes barbecued; an egg cake, which looks like quiche but doesn't have much flavor; shredded pork; rice; and, atop it all, a crisp-edged fried egg. OK, this doesn't fall under the light rubric, but it's not heavy, and it is delicious.

Another big seller is bun thit nuong cha gio, which is crisp pork morsels served with a rice-paper-wrapped spring roll. Those accustomed to the deep-fried egg rolls and spring rolls of other cuisines may not cotton immediately to the gelatinous texture of rice paper, but it's oh-so-much healthier. I discovered, too late, that Pho Hang will let you try your hand at assembling your own spring rolls.

For dessert, order a fruit shake or a refreshing che, which mixes kidney beans, lima beans, coconut milk and crushed ice and is similar to the Filipino halo halo. Coconut is the main taste. Among the shakes, I resisted avocado and ventured the durian fruit, native to Southeast Asia, whose taste and fragrance are hotly debated (love it or hate it). For me it was "burnt banana," while jackfruit was a sweeter version of peach.

Pho Hang has been pleasing customers for 10 years. It shares a strip mall with a Vietnamese grocery, a nail salon and a cyber café — not the most serene atmosphere imaginable, but Pho Hang's serenity lies in its food.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].