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PHO BETTER OF PHO WORSE

Dad was "in Vietnam"--the polite way my family referred to that whole mess of a war--for three years, so it was only natural that some of the country rubbed off on him. I didn't realize how much, though, until years later, when I began to recognize that Vietnam had flavored large parts of my childhood.

For example, there were all those times that my father annoyed the waiters at Chinese restaurants by demanding lettuce to wrap around our egg rolls. He thought it was normal to have a hankering for soup at breakfast, when the Vietnamese eat their pho. Dad certainly didn't want to start his day with American pastries, because he claimed he could never find ones as good as those in Vietnam. This assertion never made sense to me until a history lesson revealed that the country had been a colony of France for about a century. (I hear you can still get great French bread in Vietnam.)

And it was only when a slew of movies about the Vietnam War came out in the Eighties that I realized di di mau (pronounced "dee dee mow") means "go quickly." Since my father would yell it at us good-naturedly when we pestered him, we always thought di di mau was roughly the equivalent of "watch out or you'll get a smack on your butt."

The thing about Vietnam that made the biggest impression on my six-year-old brain, however, was that my father threatened to ship the family pet there. "If you kids don't take care of that dog, I'm going to send it to Vietnam," he'd warn. "They eat dogs there, you know." True--but it's always been with about the same frequency that Americans eat squirrels.

There's certainly no dog--or dogs, for that matter--on the menu at My Canh, an eight-month-old restaurant owned by Buong Ton and Tom Nguyen, who bought what used to be Pho Hoa in the Far East Center. The new owners retained the bright-pink, plant-filled interior and added a large fish tank that's popular with children. Many of the offerings have stayed the same, however--and so has the overall high quality of the food.

One of the few exceptions to the kitchen's excellent work was an order of six egg rolls ($4.25); they hadn't been cooked long enough to turn the pork from pink to brown. I took the offending items home and threw them in a chef's pot. They emerged as candidates for the egg roll hall of fame--stuffed with spicy pork, shrimp and a tiny bit of imitation crabmeat. They'd been served with the usual overabundance of lettuce, vermicelli (rice noodles) and bean sprouts, but the only adornment these tasty rolls needed was nuoc cham, the watery dipping liquid made from the fish sauce nuoc mam. Traditional nuoc cham also contains varying quantities of red chiles, garlic, sugar and lime juice; My Canh's version added a refreshing touch of ginger, probably young ginger with its milder pepper flavor and slightly sweeter flesh.

The ca chien mam gung ($7.95), a fried whole perch with a thin, crisp shell of skin holding in the juicy flesh, also benefited from a wonderful sweet-and-spicy sauce: nuoc gung (nuoc is water, gung is ginger), a blend of red chiles, vinegar, scallions and sweet pickled ginger. As good as it was, this still wasn't the best sauce we sampled. That distinction belonged to a thick yet creamy puree of peanuts and coconut milk that accompanied a pair of soft-shell crabs ($7.95). The deep-fried crustaceans were nothing special on their own, but slathering the rather thick batter with that garlicky peanut concoction quickly elevated the dish to the sublime.

The defining dish of Vietnamese cuisine in this city, however, is pho, a soup based on a complex beef broth to which a little bit of anything and everything is added. We tried the bo vien version of My Canh's pho ($3.95 for a medium), filled with tasty, boiled Vietnamese meatballs of seasoned beef ground into a paste. The broth was salty and rich with the flavors of many simmered meats and bones. So pho, so good.

But then we ventured into Pho Tau Bay, a little spot further down Federal Boulevard that was known as Pho Hien Vuong until early this week. Owner Ha Nguyen (no relation to the aforementioned Tom; about half of Vietnam has the last name Nguyen) once worked as a cook at the now defunct (and much missed) Pho Pasteur.

Nguyen says he changed the name so that his place will be more readily identified as a pho restaurant. "We have no business," he explains. "I wait almost one year after I open for Westword to write story about me. Each month like 10,000 years. Now I have to change name to get business so people know what I am doing here." Tau Bay is the name of several establishments in Vietnam famous for their noodle soups; for Denver's Tau Bay to be a success, though, changes more crucial than a mere name switch are needed. Whereas Pho Pasteur's soups were strong and complex, Tau Bay's are weak and thinly flavored, laden with cheap ingredients and choking with vermicelli.

In addition to bland broth, Tau Bay's pho tai gau ($3.95) suffered from overly chewy meat--slices of rare flank steak and well-done brisket--that indicated low-grade cuts had been used; the soup was topped with a slimy film of bean sprouts well past their prime. This same indifference to ingredients cropped up in the com chien duong chau ($4.95), a rice plate of, well, a lot of dry rice, half of a scrambled egg (we were the only customers, so where did the other half go?), tiny dried-out cubes of pork the size of rice grains and none of the promised shrimp and chicken. The only worthwhile component in the mix was the Chinese sausage, which had been glazed with sugar water and grilled until each piece caramelized--but there were only a few pieces to pick at.

There was nothing redeeming about the hu tieu tom cua ($4.50), a seafood noodle soup that also lacked promised ingredients--and flavor. By "shrimp," the kitchen apparently meant one; the fish cake turned out to be two thin slivers, and the squid turned out to be nonexistent. Instead, the bowl contained a whole pollack's worth of imitation crabmeat and a half-pound of vermicelli, all lurking beneath a lily pond of basil leaves.

Tau Bay must have gotten quite a deal on those rice noodles, because they also made up the bulk of the bun thit bo nuong ($4.95). The pho-sized bowl was topped with a few slices of beef--coated on the outside with more of that sugar-water marinade--and sprinkled with peanuts, shredded lettuce, mint and basil. About two tablespoons of nuoc cham had sunk to the bottom of the bowl, but that wasn't enough to coat even a quarter of the vermicelli.

Without something to eat them with, we couldn't finish off the noodles. And we hated to offend the kitchen by wasting so much food. So we did the only sensible thing.

We di di mau-ed out of there.

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