OK, pay attention: Pho Asian Noodle House and Grill is a real find! Don't worry that it's located in what used to be a fast food place on West Lane Avenue near North Star Road. It is dramatically inexpensive; the most expensive item on the menu is only $7.25. And the food is great! The place must be doing something right since my editor allowed me to keep two exclamation points in my review-all in the first paragraph, no less.
Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes could be found on the menu and all were highly competent and authentically done. You'll also find a good selection of vegetarian fare.
The atmosphere and décor are not its high points. It's an ex-fast food space, after all. The menu was posted over the counter. Often, there was a line, but it moved fast. If you look in the kitchen, the dance of the three stir-fry chefs is worth watching as they operate in the extreme high heat to turn out nicely cooked food quickly. The large white platters that came out of the kitchen were generously loaded. This is my idea of fast food. (An odd footnote: The restroom was accessible only by going outside and around the back.)
There wasn't one appetizer I tried that I didn't really like, including a chicken egg roll (for a nice change). My favorite was the Vietnamese salad rolls, with fresh vegetables, noodles and shrimp glimmering through the stretched white wrapper. The excellent crab Rangoon was crispy and creamy with satisfying flavor. Spicy wontons were soft and luscious. Salt and pepper chicken wings came on a bed of lightly fried jalapeños, onions and lettuce. The chicken pot stickers were rich, crisp and appealing. And I enjoyed the wonton soup.
Don't be misled by the name of the dishes called "salads." They were appetizers big enough to be shared. For instance, the savory Vietnamese salad (not the same as the Vietnamese salad rolls) arrived with beef, a big bowl of noodles, lettuce and cucumbers-with a sort of lime vinaigrette dressing.
Entrees were mostly quite good. The only one that even came close to disappointing was Thai yellow curry chicken. It was perfectly adequate, but perhaps my expectations were misplaced. The flavorful mango chicken wasn't overly sweet and featured lots of vegetables.
Szechwan green beans are perhaps the best in town: cooked to the exact right tender yet textured degree and flavored with onion, garlic, jalapeño and Szechwan preserved vegetable (the essential ingredient, bless them). And the pad Thai also was wonderful, with all the complex flavors that make this dish a favorite.
It should surprise no one, however, to learn that the very best dishes on the menu at a restaurant that names itself Pho were the pho noodle soups. I sampled two and almost swooned. The roast duck noodle soup came in what was almost a basin. There were a good many substantial hunks of roast duck, a satisfying portion of white rice noodles (pho), herbs and vegetables in a fine broth.
My favorite, though, was pho dac biet (listed as No. 1 on the menu): thinly sliced eye-of-the-round steak, tendon meatballs, "beef frank" (flank, I think), lots of pho noodles, a beefy broth and a bowl of magnificent garnishes: bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, slices of jalapeño and a wedge of lime.
If that wasn't enough, it also came with pots of fish sauce and hot sauce. The hot sauce should get anyone's respect: It volatilized in the soup and cleared my sinuses. I'd say this is one of my favorite meals in a bowl, except it's more like a meal and a half.
Pho Asian Noodle House and Grill
1288 W. Lane Ave.
Atmosphere: Bustling ex-fast food place full of happy eaters.
Recommended dishes: Vietnamese salad rolls, Vietnamese salad, crispy chicken pot stickers, Szechwan green beans, pad Thai, pho dac biet (soup).
Price range: Appetizers $1.50-$5.50; soups $1.80-$3.75; salads $6.25; entrees $6.25-$7.25.
Hours: 11 am to 10 pm daily.
Service: Excellent. Order at the counter and the dishes are brought to you.
Reservations: Not accepted.