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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Pho 27 May Be No. 1

Discover some of Milwaukee’s best Vietnamese food amid casual elegance

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The word “pho” provides an immediate clue about the food at Pho 27. Pho, the beef noodle soup of Vietnam, is a specialty here. But the menu goes beyond pho to offer a thorough list of Vietnamese specialties as well as a number of Chinese entrees.

The restaurant is located in what originally was an Arthur Treacher’s, but major remodeling has removed any traces of a fast-food restaurant. The interior, with its front dining room and separate bar area, offers simple elegance. In addition to tables the color of rosewood are hanging light fixtures in the form of lotus blossoms.

The menu is organized around appetizers, soups, noodle dishes, rice plates, fried rice and meat and vegetarian entrees. The appetizers naturally include egg rolls and spring rolls. The egg rolls ($3.50), a trio filled with thin noodles, minced pork, shiitake mushrooms, carrots and even some taro, are crisp and delicious when dipped in nuoc cham, the sweet Vietnamese sauce with threads of carrot. The spring rolls ($3.95) have the usual fresh rice paper wrappers and a filling of white rice noodles, shredded lettuce, basil and whole shrimp. The sweet, brown sauce is topped with crushed peanuts.

The inexpensive noodle dishes offer a bit of everything. Vermicelli noodles with grilled pork and egg roll ($7.25) has pieces of grilled pork with a fine sweet marinade, bits of egg roll and a base of noodles topped with lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, and marinated daikon radish and carrot. Just pour on the nuoc cham and dig in. The lemongrass with beef and onion ($7.25) is a bit meatier—the beef is ultra-tender.

Among the rice plates is a dish of grilled beef short ribs ($7.50). The beef is sliced very thin, with three slivers of bone in each piece. The sweet marinade and char grilling turn this into a magical delight—the very essence of great Vietnamese food.

In addition to the special pho ($7.50) you will find a cheaper version ($6.95) that lets you choose two of the beef ingredients. Most Americans will probably gravitate toward the eye of round and brisket instead of tendons and tripe.

Most items are described well enough, but the bun bo hue ($7.95) offers no clue. This is the only Vietnamese soup that is already flavored with hot pepper. It has the usual noodles with thin slices of beef, pork pate and small meatballs; chopped scallions and cilantro are already in the broth. Add fresh basil, bean sprouts, perhaps some jalapeño slices and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. There also are a few surprises like tendon, a gelatinous bony lump, and what appear to be slices of heart or kidney. The surprises are what make the broth so great—intensely flavorful with a sheen of fat globules.

The entrees are a mixed bag of Chinese and Vietnamese items. Szechuan beef ($8.50) offers slices of tender beef with just about every Chinese vegetable imaginable. But the sauce lacks the punch of Szechuan spices. Mongolian beef ($8.50), served over crispy rice noodles, comes closer to its billing, but the sauce is too light. It needs more soy sauce. Aim for the Vietnamese dishes instead. Try the Mekong fish in clay pot ($10.95). Slices of catfish come in a pot that arrives steaming hot. The sauce is a simple sweet caramel with undertones of fresh black pepper. The dish starts out with sweet flavors that give way to the pepper—simple, intense and rather wonderful.

Vietnamese restaurants are becoming more common in Milwaukee, but Pho 27 stands out in many ways. The setting creates casual elegance, the servers are caring, and the food is some of the very best Vietnamese found in the area.

Pho 27

4756 S. 27th St.

(414) 282-9990

$-$$

Credit Cards: All Major

Handicap Accessible

pho27.com