Thursday, December 6, 2001

Super bowls

Posted on Thu, Dec 6, 2001 at 4:00 AM

If you've ever seen the movie "Tampopo," you're familiar with the delicate balance among flavors, textures and ingredients that makes up a good bowl of noodles. We don't have a traditional Japanese noodle shop in Orlando (excuse me a moment while I weep), but amid the crowd of Vietnam-ese eateries in town, we now have Phó 88, which calls itself a "noodle soup restaurant."

The phone is answered as "Beef Noodle 88," so take that as a hint; the specialty is various cuts of meat in soup, from very rare eye round and brisket to tendon and tripe. Nothing is wasted here. The restaurant is enormous, and it is made even more so by the great expanses of mirrors lining the walls, reminiscent of an exercise studio. The servings are large enough that you might need a workout.

The wrapper on the chopsticks proclaims in Vietnamese, "Enjoy your meal." I have yet to find out the significance of "88." I asked our waiter, who asked the owner and came back to say, "It's a lucky number ... isn't it?" The number 8 is considered lucky to Vietnamese, and there are a few (unrelated) Phó 88s around the country, but just as many Phó 89s, 75s, 79s and 777s. So, it's hard to say where luck lies.

While "phó" usually refers to beef soup, it literally means "your own bowl," as it's a meal that's not meant to be shared. You might want to share, though.

As with Japanese noodles, clarity of broth is a sign of good phó (pronounced "fuh," not "faux"). The masses of very thin rice noodles come submerged in clear, delicately seasoned broth, either beef- or chicken-based. The chicken broth is particularly good, lightly seasoned with ginger and scallion. It's a shame that the chicken meat (I ordered a combo of light and dark on two different occasions) was kind of tough. Soups come in three sizes ($3.95 to $5.95), and the extra-large could easily cradle your head.

Not to say that you can't stuff your head with other dishes. Shrimp, pork and crabmeat (which unfortunately is "faux") can be combined with egg or rice noodles ($5.25 to $7.75). Items that appear on most Vietnamese menus, such as pork and spring rolls on rice vermicelli ($4.95), are here as well -- along with "exotics" like shrimp paste on sugar cane, beef stew and various fried rice dishes.

I advise eating in rather than ordering to go. The noodles tend to become a unified lump if not submerged immediately, and the portions of meat are not as large in takeout.

Noodle shops are the fast-food joints of the Far East, and with Phó 88 in town, why settle for a burger?


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