The Weekly Eater


Sunday, May 12, 2002

Pho Mai owner Tuyet Au, left, holds a large bowl of pho dac biet, with slices of sirloin beef, beef meatballs, beef tendon and tripe, also shown at left, while waitress Tu Tran shows a platter of cha gio, or crispy spring rolls. The spring rolls are served with fresh vegetables.

Pho Mai’s intense flavors
find fans among the fearless

On the cusp of spring and summer, visitors to Pho Mai confront the big question -- spring roll or summer roll? On the hottest day last week, dinner guests universally opted for the summer roll ($3.75), cool and light with its filling of plain boiled rice noodles, bean sprouts and pieces of halved shrimp, all wrapped up in a round of rice paper soaked back into compliant and malleable mode.

This will make a satisfying handheld salad in months to come, but as appetizers go, it isn't as meal-friendly as the spring roll ($5.50), with its deep-fried crackly crunch, savory filling of ground pork and long rice, that you roll in a lettuce leaf with a refreshing touch of mint.

Go along, get along is the rule of survival for living on an island, but if you want to be the rebel, you might do the unthinkable and order up the winter roll ($4.25), customized to the season because of the huge wallop of fat provided by the lup cheong inside. This is the tastiest of them all and as far as most of us are concerned, delicious any time of year. Most diners pay no heed to seasons anyway, except to notice when the berries start appearing in markets and when the mangoes start to take on a rosy blush.

A large bowl of pho dac biet, with slices of sirloin beef, beef meatballs, beef tendon and tripe.

The restaurant has two locations: the smaller is on King Street near Sushi Sasabune, and the other is in the Westridge Shopping Center across from Pearlridge. Both rooms are sparely furnished and pristine. The smaller restaurant is the cozier of the two, with the smell of incense in the air, and sometimes, the sound of Peruvian pipe music on CD.

Just as its name suggests, Pho Mai offers several versions of the popular Vietnamese soup topped with sliced sirloin ($5.50), beef meatballs ($5.50), tofu ($5.50) or shrimp and squid ($6.95). Beef and chicken bones are boiled to make the clear broth to which you might add fresh basil, bean sprouts, lime juice and chili pepper to taste. A touch of sugar gives it sweetness. It's almost a shame to dunk a spoonful of chili sauce into it, but some of us are addicted to fiery foods.

For those accustomed to getting their wonton soup in Chinatown, the version served here comes with a few extras: slices of pork and whole shrimp ($5.95).

The menu is rounded out by the diverse meat and fish courses of Saigon that are seldom seen here. Those who do wish to go exploring will find intense flavors that are not for the meek or seafood phobic.

YOU CAN EXPECT fish to turn up as the major "spice" here. Ground pork is mixed with Vietnamese salty fish and egg and layered over steamed fish ($7.95). It's funny to observe the reactions to a dish like this. Try describing it to someone else sometime and watch it cause half the population to salivate, and half to retch.

A thickened fish sauce brings out the flavors of prawns sauteed with garlic and green onions. This is the most extravagant dish on the menu, at $12.95 for three whole prawns. The concentrated shrimp paste harm ha doesn't work as well with the minced, sauteed pork belly ($7.50). All I could taste was the salt in the brown gravy, although I imagine that this is great for a diet that revolves around heaping bowls of rice or noodles. No doubt this is how other people regard our beloved Spam.

Chicken and vegetables do not go unscathed. Ginger chicken ($7.50) boasts a touch of fish sauce, while ong choy is stir-fried with harm ha and garlic.

Most familiar to local palates are the rice plates with familiar entrees such as grilled pork chops ($6.25), coconut milk and lemongrass-accented curry chicken ($6.50) and roast chicken ($6.50). The bright flavor and texture of the minced lemongrass compensates for some dryness in the lemongrass chicken ($6.50). The red chili pepper sauce in the spicy shrimp plate ($6.50) was too one-dimensional to praise.

Naturally, you treated yourself to a Vietnamese ice coffee ($1.75/$2 with milk) all along so could forego dessert, which comprises various combinations of sweet beans or tapioca.

Pho Mai

1427 S. King St. (near Sushi Sasabune), 955-6583; and Westridge Shopping Center, 98-150 Kaonohi St. in Aiea, 488-9896

Food StarStarStar

Service StarStarStar

Ambience StarStarStar

Value StarStarStar1/2

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays

Cost: About $15 to $25 for two

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

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