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Wednesday, April 26, 2006 

Noodles abound on South Cushman

Noodles, it would seem, are the spice of life. They feature prominently in the cuisine of many countries, taking on different flavors and textures depending on their preparation. In Vietnam, noodles are called pho, so it’s fitting that the newest Vietnamese restaurant in Fairbanks chose the name Pho Fairbanks.

A friend had raved about Pho in the fall, but when I tried to visit I found the restaurant had closed. It seems they were merely renovating, as Pho has opened its doors once again. Tom and I ventured onto South Cushman recently, interested to see what Pho had to offer.

Early on a Saturday night, the restaurant was empty. Not just quiet, but empty: Tom and I were the only people there. When we entered, the staff hopped to attention, switching the television over to a sitcom rerun, presumably for our pleasure. Still, the menu offered a variety of dishes as well as some funny spelling errors. I’m not sure what fried wanton is, but I’ve recommended it to my single friends.

We started our meal with a shared plate of fried corn fritters ($6.95). I could have easily eaten the plate by myself and been satisfied. I noticed a sheen on the patties as I grabbed the first fritter, and I worried that they might be overly greasy, but the thin discs held up well. “I’m not getting a lot of corn, but it’s tasty,” Tom said. We had ordered the dish with a presumption that we’d be getting typical American-style fair food: fried balls of corn mush with honey butter. Instead, we found savory fritters made of ground pork and shrimp, dotted with a few whole kernels of corn. The fritters came with a viscous, lightly spicy sauce. The sweet tang was reminiscent of honey and vinegar, with a kick of chili oil. A small dish of cucumbers and carrots in a vinegar sauce accompanied the fritters.

Our meals arrived at the table, and I was once again surprised by the size of the bowls. When the main course is basically a soup, you should expect large portions, and these were no exception. My bowl of suki yaki ($9.50) was filled with clear noodles, chunks of chicken and greens, topped with fried garlic. I was disappointed that the chicken lacked flavor, but the rest of the dish was savory. The spinach was a surprise: perfectly tender despite being immersed in hot broth. The waiter had also given us a plate of icy cold bean sprouts and a bowl of hot sauce, and I sued these to experiment with the dish. The sprouts added a crunch to the dish that the cooked celery could not, and a liberal amount of hot sauce changed the flavor of the bowl from savory to spicy.

Tom, meanwhile, was struggling with his bowl of Bar-B-Q pork noodle ($8.50). “Let the record show I’m resorting to a fork,” he muttered as he gave up on his spoon. His dish had traditional noodles and slices of pork, but lacked the vegetables of mine. I tried his dish, and was once again struck by the blandness of the meat. Initially I thought that it must be because the chicken was boiled in the dish, but after tasting Tom’s food, I decided that the soup just leaches the flavor out of the meat.

In the end, Pho was an average meal with above-average portions. While our soups were large, one of them was overly bland, and the other one was helped greatly by the addition of sprouts and hot sauce. Despite being the only customers in the restaurant, I had to go to the counter to find our check. Our first dish turned out to be the best one, but what I remember most about the evening is searching for dessert in the Mighty Dollar store next door.

Review published in The Ester Republic

I am a big fan of pho. I discovered it in Seattle, where I attend college. I was doing a little internet research on the soup, and read that in Vietnamese culture, it is considered rude to present a table with their check, as it might seem as if the restaurant is hurrying the customer out the door. In every pho restaurant that I have visited (and there have been quite a few) I have had to go to the counter to get the check. I actually appreciate the gesture.

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