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Thursday, February 24,2011

Formidable pho

By Clay Fong

Pressed for time, colleague Carin and I weren’t enthused to seek a blah lunch at a ho-hum sandwich shop or fast food joint during a recent journey to Broomfield. I also realized it had been some time since I had enjoyed a bowl of pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Consequently, I hoped 120th Avenue’s Pho 79 could address our cravings for Southeast Asian cuisine in a quick and inexpensive manner.

Located in the same retail complex as the Pacific Ocean Marketplace supermarket, Pho 79 is squarely situated in one of the most pho-dense neighborhoods in the metro area. There are competitors a few doors down and across the street. Yet this eatery distinguishes itself from the others through décor that’s a cut or two above the rest. The comfortable interior possesses a subtly elegant charm, set off by a vintage bicycle pedicab perched near the front door.

Despite the slightly fancy ambience, the menu here should be extremely familiar to pho habitués. There’s the expected smattering of entrée rice plates and spring rolls. Naturally, one can also select from a voluminous selection of intriguing beverages ranging from French-influenced pressed coffees sweetened with condensed milk to tropical fruit shakes. But as is the case with most pho restaurants, the star attraction is the soup, available in permutations running the gamut from the spartan to the indulgent.

As Carin is a pho beginner, I advised her to order a number six, an uncomplicated mix of brisket and rare steak. I went for the more ambitious number 10, a mélange of rare steak, tendon, tripe and a blend of well-done and marbled brisket. Soup pricing is based on size, rather than number of ingredients, with small bowls coming in at a modest $5.95 and large portions going for $7.25. We opted for the $6.75 medium bowl, which provides enough to satisfy most diners.

“This isn’t a salad,” I informed Carin, gesturing to the plate of garnishes delivered by our efficient server. These condiments are often an accurate predictor of soup quality, and here this fine blend of ingredients could easily have been mistaken for a first-rate main course. Carin was impressed by the quality and quantity of fresh basil, surrounded by an abundance of verdant saw herb, plump lime wedges, crisp bean sprouts, and slices of hot chile pepper.

The soup arrived soon after, which allowed us, pun intended, to get to the meat of the matter. The chief measure of a quality pho is the broth. Pho 79’s exemplary liquid base possessed a rich and unmuddied beef flavor, not too salty, with a clean, clear appearance. A spritz of lime and letting a few pepper slices steep in the broth made for ideal flavor that complemented the nicely textured thin rice noodles.

The beef was above reproach, with thin slices of steak mingling well with the pleasing chewiness of the tendon and tripe, which isn’t as pungent as it is in menudo. The brisket varieties contributed heft, although the fattiness quotient might be too much for some diners. Finishing my soup, I concluded that Pho 79 is as adept in preparing its namesake dish as any other. As a matter of fact, the ingredient and preparation quality approaches, if not equals, some of my favorite San Francisco Bay Area spots.

Clay’s Obscurity Corner Pho Hoa Lao

Pho 84 was one of the first Vietnamese soup spots in Oakland, opening in the mid-’80s on Alice Street. While this restaurant has since relocated, and one hears the pho is not what it was years ago, the original location was a favorite teen hangout of mine. Nowadays, Pho Hoa Lao on International Boulevard (formerly East 14th Street) is my go-to venue when I return to the Bay Area. A popular spot with Oakland motorcycle police, this always-busy venue is noteworthy for consistent quality and speedy service — I’ve never waited more than three minutes after ordering my pho.

Pho 79 6650 W. 120th Ave. #A5 Broomfield 303-439-0028

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