Mama Pho Vietnamese Restaurant opened last November in a shuttered McDonald's at the corner of South Grand Boulevard and Chippewa Street. Visit at the right time — a weekend lunch, say, Disney Channel programming blaring from the two flat-screen TVs, parents hunched over steaming bowls of pho, their kids plowing through plates of plain rice and sweet grilled pork — and you might believe it remains a branch of the fast-food empire. Everything feels so casual, so commonplace, that it comes as a shock when your server hands you a laminated menu on which the closest thing to a McDonald's milkshake is a durian smoothie.
Pho is in the name. How is it in the bowl? Minus the add-it-yourself accompaniments (bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime wedges, jalapeños and culantro; the last item is an herb similar to cilantro in spelling and flavor and is often referred to as sawtooth cilantro or Vietnamese coriander), the broth is beefier than most other restaurants', pho's defining anise note more a subtle accent here. Pho is available in various combinations of meats, from novice-friendly eye-round steak and brisket to advanced-level meatballs (not like American meatballs, but with a springy texture and faintly dank taste) to expert-status tendon and tripe.
Lighter and requiring much less customization is the beef wonton soup, a clear broth garnished with fresh scallion and cilantro as well as a hefty dose of fried garlic. Thinly sliced beef and wontons stuffed with pork sausage provide ballast and a richer backbeat of flavor. Those who desire heat will have to squirt sriracha sauce from the ever-present bottle.
Only capsaicin freaks will want to add sriracha to the bun bo Hue. Its surface glistens with brick-red droplets of pure heat. This is the traditional soup of the Vietnamese city Hue, a beguiling contrast between the citric brightness of lemongrass and chiles and the marshy, earthy flavors of shrimp paste and pork offal. As with pho, you can add herbs, lime juice, bean sprouts and jalapeños to taste; here, though, you also receive a tangle of sliced banana blossoms (the flower at the end of a banana bunch), which impart a lightly sweet note to the soup.
Of course, Mama Pho offers more than soup. The menu has the broad reach of most area Vietnamese restaurants — though you might struggle to find more than a couple of dishes that you haven't seen before. In my case, that was tau hu ky, which the menu describes as "fried shrimp tofu sheet." This isn't quite as mind-bending as it might sound. Rather, this is a lump of ground or minced shrimp about the size of a miniature Halloween candy bar, which is wrapped in a tofu sheet and then deep-fried. Inside its thin, crisp tofu shell, the shrimp mixture is moist and lightly spongy and has a clean, sweet flavor. Dipped in the restaurant's very mildly spicy nuoc cham, it is delicious.
The tau hu ky are available as an appetizer, and they also accompany com tam dac biet, or the "Mama Pho Special." This is an impressive plate of food: thin grilled pork chops topped with a sunny-side-up egg, a piece of egg-pork cake (something like a quiche, its flavor not exactly eggy — but definitely more egg-like than porky), gossamer strands of fried pork skin, some token vegetables and a mound of broken jasmine rice. The chops are the standout here, the sweet, deeply browned meat given an indulgent unctuousness thanks to the runny egg yolk.
Really, you can't go wrong with any dish at Mama Pho that includes grilled pork — and there are many of them, from variations on the com tam dac biet platter to the bowls of rice noodles known as bun. Served without broth but topped with grilled pork, two egg rolls and garnishes as well as nuoc cham, the bun cha gio thit nuong is sort of a greatest-hits dish — an excellent way for Vietnamese-restaurant rookies to get their feet wet.
Woe to those, rookie or veteran, who can't appreciate a good spring roll. Mama Pho's are very good, the basic coi guon plump with pork, shrimp, noodles and vegetable, freshly rolled so the rice paper puckers against your skin. The peanut dipping sauce is no revelation, but it gives the rolls a depth of flavor.
Yes, there are banh mi, the It Sandwich: ham and pâté and (if you're lucky) head cheese inside a crusty baguette, usually topped with carrot, pickled daikon, cilantro and jalapeño. These are surprisingly light — the bread is, by far, the bulk of the meal — absurdly cheap ($3.25 here) and almost always delicious. Do Mama Pho's compare to the best in town (Phuc Loi and Banh Mi So #1 - Saigon Gourmet, if you are wondering)? I can't tell you: The kitchen prepared the wrong banh mi, with grilled pork (banh mi thit nuong) instead of the traditional deli meats (banh mi thit nguoi). This was still tasty, but this week's column has already celebrated that grilled pork more than enough.
This was the only outright mistake I encountered at Mama Pho, though the service as a whole can be too casual, with nothing more than whim seeming to determine the intervals between your being seated, brought water and asked what you would like. If you want a drink besides ice water, be sure to ask rather than wait to be asked. The fresh lemonade is very good, not too sweet, and the classic cafe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) is sweet and very strong.
If the space as a whole can't shake the dingy look of an outdated fast-food joint, that is no reason to avoid the restaurant. After all, have you seen a newly built McDonald's? They look more like big-box stores than the prefab grease traps they really are. In this case, at least, much better cooks were able to step into the abandoned space, and the meals are much, much happier than before.