Comfort in over 25 varieties at Phó Queen

For the urban adventurer, every strip mall along East Washington Street is another potential treasure trove, another opportunity to unearth a Fountain of Youth or pharaoh's tomb in the form of a vintage furniture outlet or little-known eatery. You might stumble into International Buffet (7783 E. Washington St., 351-8528), for instance, with its soup bowl towers and endless array of Technicolor salads. A small bowl of phó is larger than any soup you'd get at other restaurants and runs just $5.95.

Driving a block farther past I-465 one Friday night, we suddenly faced some tough choices. The crimson glow of neon at a Chinese buffet beckoned across the parking lot. Red lanterns danced in the evening breeze. Inside, more red and gold cast a magical aura around blissful diners.

Then there was Pyramid of Enlightenment Spiritual Center, where a psychic reading seemed to be in progress. The thought of some spiritual nourishment was tempting, especially after months of sound bites from the campaign trail.

Ultimately, though, we had a destination in mind, and a famed comfort food as our Holy Grail.

The interior of Phó Queen is a bit sparse and has the feeling of a restaurant that's still settling into a space larger than it needs. Only a couple of decorative prints dot pristine white walls. Inside the door, a murky green aquarium with shockingly bright goldfish cloaks the view to an adjacent room with two pool tables and a big screen TV.

Unlike most Vietnamese menus with page after page of colorful dishes, the menu here has just under 50 choices, more than half of them soup. To dedicate such space to a single dish demonstrates just how revered this comforting concoction is in its East Asian homeland.

Phó (more like "fun" without the "n"), the brothy mélange of rice noodles, meats and seasonings, has long been a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Today, it rivals such Asian favorites as ramen, udon and soba as the most popular starchy import from the continent where Marco Polo allegedly discovered pasta.

A small bowl of phó is larger than any soup you'd get at other restaurants and runs just $5.95. Over 25 varieties combine rare or well-done ingredients that range from homey meatballs to more anatomical items such as tendon and tripe. Not wanting to miss out on anything, we went for Pho Chin, Nam, Gau, Gan, Sach, a mouthful of a name promising more than a mouthful of ingredients, like well-done beef brisket, flank, fatty flank, tendon and tripe. Thankfully, the menu illustrates each ingredient with vivid little pictures to let you know what you're eating.

By itself, the soup is comfortingly mild. Tripe is sliced into tender threads that melt into the broth, and fatty flank adds depth. A hint of allspice or cinnamon lingers, evidence of Vietnam's prominence among spice exporters. A plate of garnishes makes the dish interactive - and ups the flavor ante considerably. Lime slices, Thai basil, sprouts and jalapeños give the soup a kick, and the brave can chance a few drops of hot sauce from tableside bottles.

Among non-soup items, about half are more familiar rice dishes and half vermicelli, a little like Chinese lo mein. Spring rolls ($2.50), one of only four appetizers offered, come in translucent rice paper with a filling of shrimp, pork and yet more noodles. The rice paper is slightly thicker and more gelatinous than at other local Vietnamese joints, making them a little chewy. But the plum sauce is thick with ground peanuts. More familiar fried egg rolls ($2.50) were a little greasy and heavy on the pork filling.

Perhaps the tastiest dish consisted of grilled pork steak with bits of shredded pork and a fried egg over rice ($6.75). A sweet, vinegary fish sauce, the "house sauce," helped to perk up the rice, and the egg added a nice richness to the mix. Lemongrass chicken ($6.50), another Vietnamese standard, came with meaty slices of white meat in a slightly spicy, aromatic coating.

Service seemed a family affair, with members of every generation bringing out different courses, most of them at once. Our waitress insisted on our using the sauces and garnishes in their proper places, sometimes giving us little choice before she had poured them on. Tabletop racks offer both chopsticks and silverware, notably from IKEA, taking our meal around the globe to Sweden.

Phó Queen fills a void left by the sudden disappearance a few years back of Saigon Kitchen, the former queen of Vietnamese treats on Indy's Eastside.

While the dishes aren't as diverse as they are at similar eateries in town - we were dying for a few vegetables with our meal - this is a great place for phó novices to get an education or for longtime phó fans to try a multitude of variations on a favorite dish. If Phó Queen isn't a Fountain of Youth, taking you back to your mother's chicken soup, at least it's a welcoming oasis served in steaming bowls, a treasure to any hungry, searching soul.

Phó Queen

8101 E. Washington St.

895-5912

Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Food: 3 stars

Atmosphere: 2 1/2 stars

Service: 3 1/2 stars

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