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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

Vietnamese Specialty

Pho’s focused menu

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If a single dish symbolizes Vietnamese cookery, it’s pho. Pho is a noodle soup that is typically made with beef, although there are chicken and seafood variations as well. About six months ago a Vietnamese restaurant opened in Milwaukee with the name Pho Hai. The restaurant opens in the morning (pho is typically a breakfast dish in Vietnam) and, as the name implies, the specialty is pho, with 25 varieties served: 20 of beef, the remainder of chicken, shrimp and mixed seafood.

Pho Hai, located in the former S&P Thai, is a small place with about 10 tables. The sparse decor features a few photographs of the Vietnamese countryside and three flat-panel televisions.

The standard servings are very large; though the menu does not mention it, a smaller size is available. The beef varieties ($6.99-$7.99) all begin with rice noodles and a slightly sweet beef stock. You’ll find differences in the cuts of beef, which are thinly sliced and come in many combinations. There is flank steak, well-done brisket and even tripe for the more daring.

Tai nam gau is a conservative combination of rare steak, flank and fatty brisket. When the steaming bowl arrives, it is time for a bit of creativity. The utensils are at the table: ceramic spoons and chopsticks. Fresh bean sprouts, basil, jalapeno pepper slices and limes arrive on a plate with the pho and should be added to the dish, as the flavors will be very fresh. You can also select from condiments such as soy sauce, hoisin sauce and sriracha, the Vietnamese hot pepper sauce.

The menu offers options besides pho, including appetizers, entrees served over rice and additional noodle dishes minus the broth. Cha gio cuon ($6.50) is a perfect starter, a serving of four Vietnamese egg rolls filled with minced spiced beef and cellophane noodles. Dip them in nuoc cham, a condiment of sweetened fish sauce with carrot threads that arrives with most of the entrees. Goi tom du du ($9) is a green papaya salad with shrimp that comes in a serving size that is more than enough for an entree. The papaya is not ripe yet and therefore not overly sweet. The shrimp are barely cooked and delightfully soft in texture. Other ingredients include peanut, roasted shallot, carrot, basil and a tiny amount of hot red pepper. This is very similar to the Thai/ Lao som tum, but the flavors are purely Vietnamese.

Bun tom nuong ($7.75) is another shrimp dish. The shrimp are chargrilled to perfection and served over rice vermicelli. The rest of the bowl is filled with raw cucumber, bean sprouts and chopped lettuce, with nuoc cham served on the side.

For those who find the previous dish a tad too simple, there is the com suon nuong ($8.50), a crowd-pleaser that includes charbroiled pork chops served over a bed of steamed rice. Some of the pieces of meat are boneless and all have a delightfully sweet marinade. There is also lettuce, carrot, cucumber and, for variety, slices of tomato.

Pho Hai is a well-focused restaurant with reasonable prices, friendly service and flavors that ring true and authentic. No wonder the tables are often full.

Pho Hai 3881 S. 27th St. (414) 282-8041 $ Credit Cards: MC, VS Smoke-free Handicap Access: Yes

Pho Hai | Photo by Miranda Chaput