Restaurant review: Huong Vietnamese Restaurant

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive
#15 with grilled beef

Cuisine is culture you can eat. So when mugginess and a relentless sun become the norm during these droopy days of summer, I often seek relief through the cuisine of a culture accustomed to dealing with extreme heat and humidity. Enter a locally unsurpassed, notably inexpensive bastion of authentic Southeast Asian, home-style cooking: Huong Vietnamese Restaurant.

A humble-but-lively-and-accessible mom-and-pop operation where diners can order by number, Huong has blessedly efficient air conditioning, a steady stream of regulars and an ostensible commitment to quirkiness. Here, old music videos play on an old TV while dishes are ferried to and from the kitchen on a flat-shelf utility cart.

Above the simple tables and two-person booths are a few diverting-enough wall decorations that include fake flower bouquets. But the main eye-attractor is a huge mural of cobalt blue ocean waves foaming up onto a tropical seashore. Based on the splatter patterns along the painting's foreground, it looks like some soup has washed up onto that beach, too.

After tasting Huong's pho - no restaurant in town does the classic Vietnamese noodle soup better - it's hard to fault enthusiastic slurpers for splashing a bit while attacking a hulking bowl of it. But it's a shame to waste a drop of Huong's rich and meaty, five-spice-kissed, scallion-scented beef broth.

Characteristic of this restaurant, non-adventurous and adventurous diners are equally accommodated. If your only desired protein is tender, paper-thin slices of flavorful rare beef that cook in the steaming broth, pick the excellent Pho Tai ($6.80). If you'd like to add tripe, tendon, springy meatballs and flank steak ($8.80) or switch gears to chicken ($6.65) or fish ($8.65), you're good to go there, too. All bowls come with plates bearing mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime and jalapeños.

More of those DIY veggies, plus the requisite pickled daikon and radish and a saucer of the ubiquitous house condiment - a sweet-tart liquid that's properly funky from fish sauce - accompany Huong's bánh mi. Whereas many bánh mi (Vietnamese submarine-style sandwiches) made elsewhere are pre-dressed and snack-sized, Huong's are customizable and arrive on enormous rolls that are toasty yet pliable. Although light on the advertised pâté and mayo, a commendable bun, fresh accoutrements and thick slices of grilled, juicy, marinated meat made my chicken bánh mi ($6.75) a winner.

Along with pho and bánh mi, rice noodle salads called bún (with toasted nuts, lettuce and more) are among the most-celebrated Vietnamese dishes. Order the bún combo highlighting okay egg rolls and plentiful, delicious, lean grilled beef ($11.50), and you'll get a veritable three-course meal in a bowl.

One of my favorite menu items might sound exotic, but it recalls a very approachable cross between a crepe and a giant omelet: Bánh Xéo ($8.10). Generously filled with tender pork, sweet shrimp and bean sprouts, the savory pancake sports a rich, golden-brown exterior as crisp as thin-crust pizza. For extra fun, you can eat it taco-style, rolled into the provided lettuce leaves and accessorized with the expected vegetables and condiments.

Alcohol isn't served, but drinks can be fun, too. There are $3.50 smoothies in interesting flavors such as avocado and durian (a notoriously challenging fruit) and salted "fresh-squeezed lemonade" ($3) that tasted, well, partly fresh-squeezed.

My favorite Huong beverage is made-to-order Vietnamese iced coffee ($3.50) presented in a little French-drip contraption. After draining into a cup of condensed milk, the coffee is poured over ice.

Sipping this elixir - think just-melted, fancy coffee ice cream - with Huong's popular, huge pork chop platter containing rice, veggies, fried egg and garlicky "pork skin" noodles (Com Tam Suon Bi Trung, $9.65) is like saying, "What heat?"

Huong Vietnamese Restaurant

1270 Morse Rd.,

North Side