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Keep your cool with Vietnamese know-how

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[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
Don’t let the red-checked tablecloths fool you: The food at Pho Quyen is down-home Vietnamese, a fact being savored by Quyen Tran, left, of Pinellas Park and his brother Richie Tran as they enjoy lunch at the Pinellas Park restaurant.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 23, 2001


The refreshing smoothies, bun dishes, sandwiches and crunchy toppings are evidence that a people familiar with hot weather are specialists at beating it at mealtime.

If you do not know the cooking of Vietnam, there is no better time to make the pleasure of its acquaintance than in the drooping heat of late August.

From a country hotter and muggier than ours, Vietnamese-Americans have brought Florida a cargo of cooking tricks and cooling treats that can refresh our daily lives.

Best proof is in an inexpensive restaurant like Pho Quyen, an everyday place tucked amid other everyday shops in Pinellas Park. We now have a variety of Vietnamese restaurants, from the thousand flavors of Ben Thanh in St. Petersburg and the uptown stylings of Tampa's Cafe B.T. to simple sandwich places like Banh Mi Saigon.

But I'm also pleased by the number of pho shops, especially in this neck of Pinellas, as are the people for whom Vietnamese cooking is a daily staple. They know how to eat and drink to beat the heat for less than $10.

Sure, Pho Quyen's namesake dish is pho, the national bowl of beef broth and noodles, but its menu includes cooling bun salads, fresh spring rolls, sandwiches and milkshakes.

Honest. One glance at the red-checked tablecloths and tall fountain glasses filled with creamy pastel concoctions and you might think you were in a malt shop.

Of course, the music's a little different, pop with Viet lyrics, and the shakes come in flavors we didn't have in my high school. All the better: jack fruit starts out like pineapple but turns into a smoothie of perfumed flowers; the legendary durian (so powerful it's banned on subways) is full of exotic aromas, yet creamy sweet with a small sour twist at the end. I'll go back for soursop and mung bean. The tropical soda fountain at Pho Quyen works with lychee, fresh coconut, dried plum, pennywort and more. Not to mention the Vietnamese ways with fresh lemonade, sweet and sour, and coffee, iced and enriched with condensed milk.

Likewise the sandwiches, or banh mi. You'll recognize the French bread and fillings such as grilled chicken and shredded pork until you get to shrimp and pork meatballs, but go for any of them. The real treat is a fresh garnish of cilantro, onion, cucumber, lettuce, green pepper and carrots that puts more crunch and chill in your mouth than a Chicago hot dog. The final touch is to dress it with a little nuoc cham, that transparent dipping sauce made with fish sauce, vinegar and lime juice.

Still, drinks and sandwiches are just snacks with their roots in street food. For real meals, any meal from mid-morning on, the Vietnamese turn to big bowls of noodles or rice.

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One of the specialties of Pho Quyen, a Vietnamese restaurant in Pinellas Park, is Bun Bo Hue, a spicy beef soup which took its name from the city of Hue, near which the recipe originated. Page 36
Novice explorers of Vietnamese cooking think pho beef noodle soup seems best for cold days and bun noodle salads better for most of the Florida year. The Vietnamese don't limit them the same way. Both combine a wide variety of flavors, lemons and peppers and herbs fresh from the garden, before the diner dips into the condiments: hot srichacha, soy sauce, hoisin, chili garlic and vinegar, all racked up with soup spoons and chopsticks on each table.

Bun shows off grilled meats or spicy curries against cold vermicelli, lettuce, peanuts, fried onions and herbs. (I like more cilantro than Pho Quyen uses.) It provided a great backdrop once for rather delicate squid, and another time for beef wrapped in grape leaves, which looked like small cigars and had a deep, smoky flavor.

That makes obvious sense in a hot country: Add something cooked on an outdoor fire to cold ingredients, yet a bowl of pho from the north is as practical and more profound. The essence of pho (pronounced somewhere between fuh and fur) is the broth, a long-simmered distillation of beef bones, with a touch of fish sauces and other spices, a secret of each cook. Pho Quyen's is one of the best I've had; it looks as clear and innocent as consomme, but it's intense with beef mysteriously perfumed with ginger, probably anise and fish sauce too.

That's the beginning. Ultimately and quickly pho will become a poem on the many ways the Vietnamese love beef, in all its parts, from brisket and rare beef to tendon and tripe.

Make your choice (Pho Quyen offers 15 combinations), then the kitchen assembles thinly shaved beef, cooked noodles and pours on the broth. At the table you get a plate of sprouts, stalks of basil, jalapeno slices and lime to add at your discretion. The possibilities are endless -- I love hoisin and hot srichacha -- and you won't really spoil the broth, but do try it unadulterated first to see what a master has created in a stockpot.

I tried the house deluxe, with more kinds of beef than I could count, plus meatballs. Brisket, flank and rare beef all tasted like sliced roast beef; "tendon" was more like marrow or fat; and tripe tasted fine but looked so odd that I'll skip it next time. What Pho Quyen calls meatballs, or sausage or meatloaf, is better translated as "pate," an exquisite mixture of ground meats and spices.

From the rest of the menu, the most interesting is a group of noodle soups called hu tieu. They come from the south and are made with a lighter stock, different noodles and, occasionally, flavors borrowed from neighboring Cambodia. The one I tried was both sweet and slightly peppery and loaded with scallops.

My visits to Pho Quyen convinced me that summer's the perfect time to dive into a bowl of soup or cold rice noodles. The good people on the staff were happy to give swimming lessons too.

RESTAURANT REVIEW

Pho Quyen Vietnamese restaurant

  • 4505 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park
  • (727) 545-5678 Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
  • Reservations: No
  • Credit cards: Most
  • Details: Beer, wine served; non-smoking section provided
  • Prices: $2 to $8

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