TO MANY readers, this restaurant will be an adventure. A visit to Pho Hong, located in one of Buffalo's oldest neighborhoods, is like a trip abroad. The tiny, family-run Vietnamese dining room is cheerfully decorated with Vietnamese posters and brightly colored silk flowers tied with perfectly curled red ribbons. Someone has taken very special care.
The place is peaceful enough during the week -- you'll be able to concentrate on the Vietnamese tapes that play in the background. To me, it sounds like Top 40 music with Asian overtones.
But on the weekends, we're told, the scene erupts as a crowd comes in for karaoke; special dishes are offered at this time, also. (For someone unfamiliar with this food, however, it might be better to start slowly.)
Vietnamese food shows some similarity to Chinese and Thai food, though it's not as hot as Thai. Much use is made of raw vegetables, rice and noodles; meat is used sparingly. Basically, it is a healthy way to eat.
Dipping sauces add flavor -- one of the tastiest sauces is made from bits of red chile, fish sauce (which barely tastes fishy), carrots and daikon (white radish). You can squirt some hot sauce on your food if you want to. Hoisin sauce, sweet as well as spicy, is on the tables here as well.
Basil, cilantro, lime, anise -- you'll detect all these flavors, but they will never overwhelm you. This is subtle food.
We began our meal with two kinds of spring rolls, both made from what is called rice paper. (Actually it is cooked rice, rolled paper-thin.) The fried spring rolls were incredibly crisp and packed tightly with ground meat, onion, clear noodles and carrots. They were completely free of grease.
Even better were the cold spring rolls, perfect summer food. Works of art, these -- perhaps made by the same person who curled those pretty ribbons -- the rice paper wrapping is scalloped and a bit of scallion sticks out of the end to provide a pretty, little green handle. The spring rolls taste delightfully of mint.
Hearty soup (Pho) is an important element of Vietnamese cuisine and is sometimes eaten for breakfast. The Special Beef Noodle Soup came out in a pretty blue and white bowl with a side dish of mild fresh basil, lime wedges and sprouts.
We added the basil, lime and sprouts to our taste. The beef broth is light and well-filled with long clear noodles -- impossible to eat without slurping. You have to use both chopsticks and Chinese soup spoons to carry this off with finesse.
We found pieces of thinly cut beef in the soup, too. It's added to the bowl raw and the boiling soup is ladled over it to cook it. This is a satisfying dish.
We tried a couple of other dishes as well. A kind of steamed rice paper dumpling (Banh Cuon Hong Dac Biet) served up crisply barbecued pork shreds and Vietnamese ham (more like sausage, $4) was less to our liking than the Steamed Rice with Barbecued Pork and Egg (more like an omelet, $5).
Beverages included a devastatingly thick Pineapple Milk Shake $2 -- the restaurant also has Jack Fruit and Mung Bean Shakes as well as Durian Shakes -- though how they ever pulled that last one off is a puzzle. The stuff has to be canned.
Although it's odoriferous, the durian is much loved in Southeast Asia. (I was once on a train in Malaysia where a sign clearly specified, "No smelly fruit or animals allowed.")
We also enjoyed cold Vietnamese coffee, which could easily become addictive for a coffee lover. The bean is dark roasted and the coffee is dripped very slowly; the resulting brew is what you call potent. Yipes. But not to worry.
Adding sweetened condensed milk makes it taste like dessert.
Rue Franklin 1/2 (May 26)
Rue Franklin, 341 Franklin St. (852-4416). One of the most beautiful restaurants in the area, with some of the tastiest French food, now offers a weeknight prix fixe dinner that is an excellent deal.
Queenston Heights Restaurant
Queenston Heights Restaurant, 14184 Niagara Pkwy., Niagara Falls, Ont. (905-262-4274). Interesting food and a drop-dead view.
J.L. Crithens 1/2 (May 19)
J.L. Crithens, 3720 Lakeshore Road, Blasdell (823-8866). A neighborhood restaurant with contemporary items and blue plate specials.
* * 1/2
1930 Genesee St. (892-1105). Enter this tiny Vietnamese restaurant and you are in another country. The signs are in Vietnamese, the music is contemporary Vietnamese, and the food is authentic. There is an English menu though, and if you have any questions the server will bring out someone who speaks English to help. Big karaoke scene on weekends and many special foods offered at that time. No wine or beer; no credit cards.
BEST DISH: Spring Rolls (Goi Cuon)
NEEDS WORK: Everything is well-made.
PRICE RANGE: Soups from $3.50. Spring rolls $3, Rice Dishes from $3.50.
HOURS: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Cold Spring Rolls, Beef Noodle Soup, many others. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.
PARKING: On the street.
KEY: FAIR, GOOD, VERY GOOD, EXCELLENT, EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.