Pho is the Vietnamese equivalent of our Big Mac - fast food that’s filling and cheap and can be found on nearly every street corner.
As far as I’m concerned, pho is much tastier and far healthier than the ubiquitous burger, though. Especially the stuff at Pho 5 Star, Spokane’s only strictly soup shop.
Pho is a noodle soup that’s the national dish of Vietnam, where it’s sold in small shops and at street stands. It’s slurped for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Since July, pho (pronounced foe) has been served at a spare storefront eatery on East Sprague, part of the B&Y; Oriental Market.
Beyond the interesting Asian music playing on the sound system, Pho 5 Star doesn’t offer much in the way of atmosphere. The nine tables have formica tops and lighting is unflattering florescent. Still, the place is clean and simple - a lot like the flavors you’ll find in the first-rate bowls of steaming soup.
There are something like 20 selections listed on one-page the menu, but it’s all basically the same thing. Delicate, slightly slippery rice noodles come swimming in a clear, intensely flavored beef broth. You choose what meat or combination of meats you want to find floating on top of this straightforward soup.
For some options, you definitely need an acquired taste - tripe, tendon or the brisket marbled with yellow fat. I tried the meatballs, which they reminded me more of a chewy sausage than something you’d find on top of spaghetti. I suggest sticking with the rare steak - thin slices of lean meat, more medium than rare - or the shrimp.
During my visits, I felt like I was visiting some faraway land because the servers spoke little English. That’s fine. I know the international language of asking for a dish by its number. Or, by pointing to a neighboring table and ordering what they have.
On one occasion, the kitchen was cooking a stir-fry that wasn’t on the menu - an excellent dish with crunchy baby bok choy, onions, shrimp and broccoli over soft noodles. It doesn’t hurt to ask if it’s available.
Before your pho makes its appearance, a plate of veggies will arrive. This mound of super-fresh bean sprouts, sprigs of fragrant basil, slices of hot peppers and wedges of lime allows diners to soup up their soup.
I’ve watched other customers and everyone seems to have his or her own technique. Some dump everything in at once, others add as they eat.
The silver-dollar-size saucers that sit on each table can be filled with hot chili paste, hoisin sauce or sesame oil or any combination of those condiments. I like to mix some of the fiery red paste with a bit of the brown, slightly sweet hoisin and use it as a dipping sauce for the meat. I’ve seen people squirt the sauces right into the pho.
For something with such lovely, simple flavors, you can certainly turn it into quite a production.
Tradition dictates that when eating pho you lift some of the noodles out of the bowl with chopsticks with your right hand and sip the broth with the spoon in your left hand. You can always ask for a fork, too, if the noodles prove elusive.
And slurping is not only acceptable, it demonstrates a level of appreciation for the dish before you.
Every bowl I have eaten at the 5 Star has been most slurp-worthy. The flavors are familiar, a little like grandma’s rich homemade noodle soup. But all the other ingredients give it a racy, exotic twist.
I like the contrast in flavors with the mild and the spicy, as well as the balance in textures between the crispy sprouts and the soft noodles. The slivers of white and green onions on the soup’s surface give it visual appeal.
It hardly seems possible that something with such light, simple flavors could fill you up, but even a small bowl makes for a satisfying meal. Or, splurge and spend $5 for the large bowl.
The menu’s list of drinks offers some unusual choices, too. Along with Coke, root beer and iced tea, there’s French-style espresso, a very sweet lemonade and a salty plum soda.
, DataTimesILLUSTRATION: Map: Pho 5 Star, 1801 E. Sprague Ave.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PHO 5 STAR 1801 E. Sprague Ave., 535-4677 Days/hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily Prices: $3.65-$5 Food: Vietnamese noodle soup Credit cards: no Reservations: yes Personal checks: yes