82nd Avenue is not a destination for fine dining--used car lots, strip clubs, and endless chain restaurants evoke the melancholic detachment of watching a Huey Lewis video at your uncle's funeral. But amidst the chaos and monotony exists a restaurant that serves as a haven for the hungry and weary. Long past its status as a well-kept secret, Phó Ván expanded from a décor-less phó house to a dazzling extravaganza of simple Vietnamese soups, noodles, and grilled delicacies. Vegetarians take note: There's not much on the menu for you beyond salad rolls and fried spring rolls, and although there is no lack of fresh vegetative garnish with rice and noodle dishes, the focus is on meat, foul, and fish.
As its name suggests, Phó Ván serves up a great deal of phó(technically pronounced like the French word for fire, feu). Phó Bo ($4.95-5.50), the ubiquitous beef noodle soup, starts with a delicate beef broth made from oxtails, anise, ginger, and other exotic aromatics. Never greasy, this broth is as light as air and just as essential. Your choice of meat ranges from thin slices of round steak and flank to fatty brisket to meatballs and finally 'going there' with shredded tripe and tendon. Unless you have a fondness for 'variety meats,' go with what you know and order the round steak, flank, or brisket.
At least half the pleasure in eating phó is the activity itself. A plate of bean sprouts, lime wedges, slivered jalapenos and Thai basil are to be incorporated in your bowl as you see fit. I like to take a few sips of broth to appreciate its unadulterated flavor before I squeeze the lime, tear up the basil, and dunk the chiles. A hefty squirt of rooster sauce turns your broth a shade of tiger lily. I drink the broth halfway before incorporating the bean sprouts, then start in on the noodles and meat. At this time, I have a mound of plum sauce on the side, and in this sweet, salty emulsion I dip the meat for a whole new language of flavors. Without fail, I use too much rooster sauce and must order a fresh lime juice ($1.75), Vietnamese coffee ($2.25), or the ultra-decadent avocado smoothie ($2.50) to quell the fire below.