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Pho So scores with substantial, cheap portions 

click to enlarge This ain't no faux pho. - BRANDON KNAPP

Although this unassuming strip-center eatery looks like two restaurants from the outside, inside, it's in fact a single business with two completely separate menus, with Egg Roll #1 serving Chinese and Pho So offering Vietnamese. Located just 15 minutes from downtown, assuming ideal traffic conditions, Egg Roll #1 has most of the usual suspects, with a generous handful of Szechuan items thrown into the mix.

But on a recent visit, our focus was strictly on the Vietnamese menu, offering the culinary road less traveled in these parts. Spotlessly clean and brightly lit, the restaurant doesn't offer much by way of décor, but it does play one of the strangest musical mixes I've heard in a while, combining military orchestral, light opera and La Vegas-style crooners. If the intention is to get diners to focus on their lunch then get the heck out, it succeeds admirably.

Featuring around thirty dishes, the short menu focuses on pho and noodles, with a smattering of grilled meats. Beginning with an order of rice paper-wrapped pork and spring rolls ($3.95 for three), the quality of the preparation was immediately evident. Crisp and generously stuffed with super-fresh sprouts and lettuce, accompanied by a sweet peanut sauce, this classic starter set a high standard.

Next came a trio of main courses, all priced at $6.99 for substantial portions. First off was a splendid pho - a traditional soup made with a light meat broth into which thin slices of rare beef and honeycomb tripe have been gently cooked. Delicately flavored with allspice and various aromatics, the broth gradually acquires more flavor with the addition of bean sprouts, lime wedges and red peppers, all served separately on the side. This was an excellent soup, quite restorative in its unique savory way, and evidently quite healthy. If the prospect of eating tripe (slightly chewy, a bit slimy and tasting of chicken feet, if that helps) is a bit daunting, there are a few good alternatives available, including flank steak and chicken.

Next came an absolutely delicious, sweetly-savory grilled pork chop served simply over sticky white rice with a crispy fried egg on top. Still soft in the center, the egg, when broken, incorporated with the sauce to create a gooey, decadent topping for the chop. As an extra bonus, a bowl of Vietnamese fish sauce on the side provided a welcome tang of umami. Accompanied by a steaming bowl of cilantro-scented clear vegetable soup, this was a hearty meal in itself.

The final entrée, egg noodles with pork and shrimp, was pleasingly savory, with no evidence of sweetness. The noodles this time were fried to a golden brown, providing a nutty contrast with the shrimp. Although a very decent dish, this was perhaps the least interesting, being more akin stylistically to a number of items on the Chinese side of the menu.

Although the menu might not be as broad or as adventurous as, for example, Saigon or the Sizzling Wok, I can wholeheartedly recommend Pho So for a refreshing change of pace.

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