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Pho Dollar wins gold for best Vietnamese in Western New York

The Sochi Olympics were just getting started when we descended on Pho Dollar, the new Vietnamese restaurant on West Ferry Street. Buffalo has had pho, the essential Vietnamese beef noodle soup, since at least 1999. But Pho Dollar’s menu has more than 100 dishes. ¶ Our table of six experienced eaters took on the freestyle 15-dish marathon. In our path: quite possibly the tiniest menu type I have ever seen. “My glasses need glasses,” Scotty kvetched. The three “lamb” dishes were supposed to say “clam.” Owner William Mai said he was getting new menus. And he was out of clams. ¶ In a stirring testament to the human spirit, the team bonded over the shared embarrassment of learning how to soften rice paper in bowls of hot water before rolling their own spring rolls. The results: Pho Dollar wins gold as the best Vietnamese restaurant in Western New York.

This former bar a block from Grant Street doesn’t serve alcohol yet. But it’s already got the ingredients to become a can’t-miss ethnic family restaurant. The two-level space is clean and well lighted. The servers hustle, though they can be spread thin if it gets crowded. The cooks hustle too – food hit our table fast. A couple can dine and leave in 45 minutes.

Then there’s the food. Everything I tried in two visits was at least good, and a half-dozen dishes were remarkable. Here’s a map to some of the treasures buried in that menu, with corresponding menu numbers.

No. 1: Chao Tom Dac San Cua Dollar ($11.95). That’s a make-your-own spring roll kit, an interesting dish for the mildly adventurous. Dip a dry wrapper in water briefly, put it on your plate to soften, and choose your filling: cooked rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber, gently pickled shredded carrot and radish, shrimp meatballs that have been formed around pieces of sugarcane, grilled and sliced. (The sugarcane sticks, included on the plate, are a sweet gnaw but not edible.)

Everybody mangles the first wrapper, then gets the hang of it, discovering that no matter how unsightly their bundles are, they’re still tasty dunked in the accompanying funky-sweet fish sauce.

Another classic Vietnamese appetizer is No. 11, Bo Nuong Xa Ot ($8.95), beef slices wrapped around chile-spiked onions and lemongrass, grilled and glazed. It was a favorite of everyone who could take its considerable heat.

Another eye-opening appetizer in the wrap-dunk-nibble category was No. 8, Banh Xeo ($9.95). It’s a plate-sized crispy coconut milk crepe with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. Tear off bite-sized hunks, wrap with lettuce, licorice-scented basil leaves and anything else that strikes your fancy. Dunk in the sweet and funky sauce. Chow. Repeat.

The Goi Ga salad, No. 5 ($9.95), was a salad of shredded cabbage, carrots, fresh basil, mint and other herbs and thinly sliced poached chicken, and in a sweet and tangy fish sauce dressing with crushed peanut. Light and refreshing, a piquant pleasure.

If you like fish funk, like anchovy pizza or fish sauce, try No. 63, Com Chien Ca Man ($12.95), salted fish and fried rice with eggs and seafood. Otherwise try one of the other fried rice options. The pungent fish adds umami as it perfumes the expertly fried rice, but the pong can hit like salty little land mines.

Spicy fried calamari with scallions and butter (No. 90, Muc Rang Bo, $12.95) was another clue that Pho Dollar’s kitchen includes an experienced wok jockey. The squid was tender inside its crunchy coat before getting a smoky rise in onions, pepper, scallions and butter. The result was intense, breathtaking and probably no good for you at all. Mai has lobster and crab versions on the menu, but said they were unavailable because he was out of fresh seafood.

Pho Dollar offers a number of Vietnamese caramel sauce casseroles, including No. 85, Thit Kho To ($11.95), pork hot pot, tender pork in sweet soy with crunchy garlic chips, like exotic potato chips. Like the butter calamari, it’s a rich, salty delight meant to be eaten with lots of white rice.

The house special rice plate, No. 44, Dac Biet Dollar ($11.95), included some interesting proteins alongside white rice. A fried egg was perched on a thick pork chop, glazed and grilled like a ham steak. There was a square of a rough patelike pork mixture, two grilled shrimp, a slim grilled shrimp meatball and pastalike sliced pork skin.

The house special noodle bowl, No. 52, Bun Dac Biet Dollar ($11.95), included chewy grilled shrimp, crunchy chopped egg rolls, tender grilled pork, sliced shrimp meatballs, ground peanut, carrots, cucumber and greenery, all over rice noodles. It was fine but not the most interesting dish on the table, just like No. 71, Mi Xao Don Tom ($10.95), a crispy egg noodle nest topped with a competent stir-fry of vegetables, plump shrimp and frozen crab product.

In a night filled with outstanding individual efforts, the pineapple catfish soup stood out. It’s No. 83, Canh Chua ($14.95), a cauldron that’ll serve as a main dish for four people, or a small bowl for eight.

The aromatic, clear broth was tangy and mildly spicy, sporting greens, pineapple chunks, pieces of mild fish, tomato wedges, pineapple chunks and sliced okra that was tender, not slimy.

In an earlier visit, I did try the pho with sliced eye of round beef ($8.95), and thought it was decent, if less aromatic than 99 Fast Food’s. Next time I’ll detour through the lengthy non-pho soup list, including spicy Bun Bo Hue ($9.95) and a Cambodian style number called Hu Tieu Nam Vang ($9.95).

We had some drinks, too. Vietnamese-style iced coffee ($3.95) is a little stainless one-cup dripper that you mix into condensed milk and pour over ice. The result tastes like an intense dark-roast ice cream shake, even after the ice cubes start to melt.

So Da Hot Ga, egg soda ($4.95), is quite different than the New York City egg cream. It actually has an egg, for starters. It’s essentially a quick eggnog lightened up with soda water. Bubble tea ($4.50) was decent, but all the tapioca pearls got clumped at the bottom of a narrow glass.

There are about 20 more dishes I need to try. And I will.

It’s fun, it’s fast, and there’s nothing else like it in Buffalo. As the kids would say, Pho Dollar is money.

Pho Dollar: 8 plates (Out of 10)

Vast menu, skilled cooks, swift service make Vietnamese newcomer best in town.

WHERE: 322 W. Ferry St. (768-0049)

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

PRICE RANGE: $4.25-$14.95, appetizers; $8.95-$11.95, soups; $8.95-$14.95 entrees.

PARKING: Street.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, through side door.