The Need Pho Speed

Admit it: you really want this job
Take your time to enjoy a hot bowl of Bun Cha Gio at Lien Hung.
Lien Hung
280 Remount
10:30am-5pm Mon, 10:30am-9pm Tue-Sun
Cash & Check only
Bathrooms not technically accessible
Admit it: you really want this job. It’s glamorous. Lots of perks: hang out with cool people, get paid to eat — and, oh yeah, drink. Let me tell you about my day …

It began with a phone call. When a body actually did supplant the “message-box-full” drone, I learned that my target for the evening had “gone on vacation” and wouldn’t reopen until the end of the month. October vacations are suspicious, if you ask me, but as I was on a deadline, I moved to target number two — similar ethnicity but different location. These folks answered their phone after a few rings and, encouragingly, assured me they’d be open until 10 pm. Great. I had several Value Vino wines to taste with my crack crew beforehand, so 10 was perfect. In fact, we arrived at 8:25, only to be told “We’re closed,” followed by some mumbled (and unconvincing) words about an “emergency.” We couldn’t have been hustled out faster if we’d been made as la migra. On to plan C — which I didn’t yet have.

It pays to travel with an aware crowd, and somebody remembered a nearby restaurant that was worth a look: same cuisine, same neighborhood, and, as it happens, also interesting as the incubator of several other Vietnamese restaurants, notably Van’s, that have gone on to bigger and better things. We arrived at Lien Hung 20 minutes before the alleged closing time of 9 p.m. Oops — the joint was empty, and it was clear they’d decided to call it a night. After some cajoling, they agreed to serve us, but only if we didn’t fool around. Agreed: We were in and out in 37 minutes flat. Kamikaze criticism. Somebody’s got to do it.

And, in fact, it was fun. The need for speed (we were given about 2 minutes to decide on orders) made for interesting banter with the only visible staff — who expressed disbelief that we’d contemplate ordering frogs’ legs, of which there are three versions on the menu. It turned out they weren’t available (or she was convinced we wouldn’t like them, thus involving more time), a glitch that, in any event, added at least four minutes to our total count. In the interest of acceleration, we ordered a single appetizer, but in fact, everything started arriving almost immediately, blurring any meaningful distinction.

Nevertheless, the Nem Nuong, or roasted pork meatballs glazed with a caramelized sugar coating that’s mortared with crushed peanuts, are worth a more leisurely examination. Here’s the quickee: springy, tasty, and best wrapped in the accompanying lettuce.

There are two ways to cook squid — quickly, or very slowly. No points for guessing which method we got with the Muc Xao Tau Xi (better known to the rest of us as squid in spicy black-bean sauce). The fast facts: great, tender squid, punchy, rewarding, fermented black beans, barely cooked (of course) bell-pepper squares. A winner.

We weren’t as happy with the Banh Xeo, the traditional stuffed omelet/crepe. Instant evaluation: not enough pork and shrimp, red onion too crisp, improved by fish sauce with grated carrot, won’t order again.

The speed-skinny on the # 8 pho with squid, shrimp (both boiled and tempura-coated), and pork is this: good broth with Asian spice-box smell; quickly add sprouts, lemon, and cilantro and go on to other dish while ingredients steep; groove on spinach, tender wonton dumplings; add hot sauce if feeling wild. Order again.

Totally immersed in beat-the-clock mentality, we also ordered one dish to take home, and it was about this time it occurred to me: “They didn’t have a takeout menu, so they probably don’t take credit cards.” Fortunately, I had enough cash to pay for everything plus the styro box of Bunthit Nuong Nem Nuong, vermicelli with meatballs (the same) and charbroiled pork. Lots of fish sauce accompanied the dish, underpinned with cucumber and sprinkled with chopped peanut. Short story: grt prts, esp smky prk; needed hrbs; added mnt & Ti basl from own gardn. Gd.

I did go back later to try the frogs’ legs and take stock of the surroundings — both pared down and spiffed up from previous occupants, even if pink and red isn’t a fave color combo and giant-screen TVs tend to annoy.

Contemplating the “appertizer” menu more at leisure this time, I started with the evocative chicken plum stick. Since I’m still on speed, figuratively, this is the time-trial take: no stick, no plum (lurid sweet & sour instead), lots of tempura-d chicken pieces. Ignore s&s, sub hoisin or chili sauce, share, smack lips.

The frogs’ legs with lemon grass merit a little longer shrift. These are bony little buggers with a whiff of eau de pond about them, but they will repay your efforts with great flavors of lemon grass, garlic, chili flakes, and onion, the whole bedded on lettuce with underripe tomato-slice accents and liberally scattered with cilantro and sliced scallion. The treatment would be just as good with unstuck chicken or any of a number of other main ingredients, but there’s something rewardingly challenging about the cuisses de Kermit.

Just another day in the life of a food critic.

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