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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 25, 2003

Favored phô, other tastes delight at new eatery

Jing Min Li serves a pork chop plate at Phô Nam at Kapi'olani and Cooke. Other favorites include the Vietnamese fried rice with dried anchovy, corn, bacon, bell pepper and basil; catfish in black pepper sauce; and a house seafood hot pot cooked in a ceramic crock.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

 •  Phô Nam

725 Kapi'olani Blvd. (entrance on Cooke Street)


10 a.m.-10 p.m. weekdays

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

1/2 Good

A food-writer friend of mine once said, "If cooking were painting, Vietnam would have one of the world's most colorful palettes." I agree.

The Vietnamese have few culinary inhibitions, always willing to try something adventurous and new. They use spices that are like songs in your mouth, aromas that trigger emotional connections, and finished dishes that astonish by their cleverness and sensuousness. Sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant like Phô Nam, you are about to sample a long, rich history and culture.

Of course, you must try the phô here ($5.95-$7.95 depending on your choice of meat topping). It's Vietnam's comfort food. This is beef noodle soup as an art form. To many people, phô is no longer soup; it's an addiction. A bowl of phô begins its life a day before you eat it. A slow simmer of beef shinbones, oxtails and various scraps of meat in a deep pot create rich, clear consommé. This process takes about 24 hours before the cooks add their own special blends of herbs, spices and family secrets. Chief among them — and you'll always know the fragrance of phô by them — are star anise, ginger and cinnamon. A side plate of crunchy bean sprouts and fresh basil accompany each bowl of phô.

The rice noodle dishes, or bun (pronounced boon), are made from rice vermicelli and served at room temperature, topped with grilled meats or fried spring rolls. The BBQ-chicken choice is $6.25; with spring rolls, it's just $6.50. Lemongrass beef or chicken ($6.50) is a favorite of mine, as is the combo of grilled pork and shrimp ($6.95). In your bowl you'll find shredded cucumber, fresh mint, lettuce, bean sprouts and roasted peanuts. A serving of something similar to a fish-sauce vinaigrette is to be poured over the entirety. I also add chile paste and hoisin sauce (it's on every table) to customize the yin and yang in my bowl of sweet, salty, sour, hot and cold.

What impresses me most about Pho Nam is the impressive variety of offerings, in addition to the Vietnamese dishes you usually see on menus. The grilled pork chop ($10.50) is thinly sliced and cooked to perfection. Several chops are included — more than enough for two.

Under the hot-pot section, you can order catfish simmered in black pepper sauce ($9.95), a sprightly but not-too-spicy sauce. Shrimp also is served this way ($10.95), along with a house seafood hot pot ($11.95), cooked in a ceramic crock that will stay hot on your table while you pick through the fish, shrimp, scallops and squid.

Shrimp curry ($6.95) was mild and creamy, and different from Indian, Thai, Chinese or Japanese curries. I asked for thick udon noodles instead of rice, and it was well matched to sop up the curry sauce. Other curries to try are corn, tofu, beef or chicken for $5.95, and the seafood one for $6.95.

Rice lovers should try the Vietnamese fried rice ($6.50) with dried anchovy, corn, bacon, bell pepper and basil. Although the technique reflects Chinese influence, the flavorings are different. The Thai fried rice ($6.50) is a spicy blend with chicken, shrimp, bell pepper and basil.

Vegetarians have plenty to choose from here. The sautéed tofu and eggplant with rice is $6.50, green-papaya salad and vegetarian spring rolls are $5.95 each. One night, I asked for something green; choi sum happened to be in the kitchen, and the resulting stir-fry was delicious, and customized to my liking with a bit of garlic and a squeeze of lemon.

Dessert time here means extraordinary coffee with sweet cream ($2.25). It is served in a little aluminum filter pot on top of a tumbler, dripping into pale yellow, sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of your cup. The entire process takes several minutes. This is strong coffee, rich and sweet. Poured over ice, this is a concoction that's as close to a religious experience as you'll ever get from a cup of Joe.

Phô Nam is just 10 months old. I predict it will be a hit once people find it tucked away on the bottom floor of a condo/office building: Nice servers, artistic plate presentation and very good food.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.