Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Phuong Nam gets better with age

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I have watched Phuong Nam grow from a tiny hole-in-the-wall, with limited street parking, into this pleasant, spacious dining room, with its own huge parking lot. Astonishingly, prices over the years have inched up barely at all, and it's still a rare dish that comes to more than $10. It has been at this address for over 12 years now, and although most of the artifacts are Vietnamese, the rear wall still sports its mural of a Portuguese caravel -- a holdover from the previous tenant -- and the music in the background (blessedly hushed) still sounds Portuguese.

But the lengthy menu is solidly Vietnamese, with the usual Chinese additions, and I have been remiss. My original assessment was four stars, and although I have eaten here a few times since -- with ever-increasing enjoyment -- it was never for a full review, and those four stars have been standing too long, These days four and a half stars are more appropriate.

Quality of food aside, what also drew me back was the fact that I didn't have to order just the same-old same-olds. Yes, many of my Vietnamese favourites do turn up elsewhere, but increasingly less so as some restaurants go pan-Asian, and/or pare their menus down to their best sellers. But I can still get my banh xeo here, a light, delicate crepe of rice flour and coconut milk, faintly tinged with turmeric, and folded around plump shrimp, slices of pork and bean sprouts. Also the far-from-incendiary but luscious chicken curry -- a small portion of chicken on the bone with potatoes, in a rich, gravy-like yellow curry, listed, mysteriously, among the banh mi sandwiches, probably because it comes with a baguette to sop up the sauce.

The salad of green shredded papaya in a subtle fish sauce dressing is a standout, fleshed out with pork and shrimp, with noodle-like strands of jellyfish for texture. Char-broiled pork balls are brushed with a sweet marinade and served in slices, to be wrapped, in rice paper crepes and romaine, with bean sprouts, cucumbers and marinated shreds of carrot. Lightly caramelized thin slices of beef are similarly served -- neither of them a rarity, but both delicious.

The umpteen varieties of noodle soups (I stopped counting at 20) come in different sizes, and cost from $6.25 small to $8.50 large -- the small bowl, unless ordered as a meal for one, is more than enough to share as a starter. I sometimes skip the phos elsewhere, only because there are two other Vietnamese soups that I also love. Not here though, where the pho is an exceptionally fragrant, full-flavoured beef broth with a hint of anise, thick with tender slices of rare beef (and/or different cuts of beef). Lime juice can be squirted in, if wished, and it's nice but not necessary -- it's marvellous either way.

Hu tieu soups, based on a pork and seafood broth, are also loaded with noodles and veggies, and do turn up on other menus. Not often in the version I love though -- hu tieu my tho, which comes topped by a super-crispy crepe pierced by a single shrimp (if it's to be shared, ask for an extra crepe).

There is another group of soups, in another part of the menu, under cahn, which is where my other top choice is listed. Sour soup with shrimp (chicken or mixed seafood are alternatives) is a light, tamarind and lime juice-flavoured broth -- actually, almost as sweet as it is sour, packed with bean sprouts, chunks of tomato and pineapple and bac ha, i.e., slices of taro stem that manage to be simultaneously spongy, crunchy and light -- celery is a frequent but not nearly as interesting substitute elsewhere ($8.75 to $10.75).

Quail is a rarity on any local menu, Vietnamese or otherwise. Here the wee, slightly gamey birds are marinated and roasted to a lovely mahogany. But what I like even more is the superb ga ro-ti, i.e., flattened slices of fried chicken on the bone, with a semi-sweet, slightly gingery glaze on the crisp surface and juicy flesh within.

Shrimp with lemon grass are invariably described as hot and spicy, which should be taken literally -- they are excellent, but: no matter how mild you order the dish, it will probably pack a wallop. I'm also always searching for Vietnamese versions of chow mein or chow fun, usually in vain. I doubt that No. 152 qualifies (it tastes pretty Chinese) but the stir-fry of slippery flat rice noodles with beef and bean sprouts was excellent, and the addition of Chinese leeks (which looked and tasted like chives, actually) gave it added distinction.

Another winner is easily overlooked since it is listed near the very end of the menu, No. 162. It's a dish I haven't found anywhere else of thinly sliced, cold rare beef in lemon juice -- actually they start out raw but are slightly cooked to a scarlet rare by the lemon juice (think carpaccio, or more likely, ceviche). At $15.50 it's over the usual $10 top, but the portion is huge, the taste wonderful and worth every penny.

There's a wide variety of fruit shakes, but for me nothing compares to a tall glass of iced Vietnamese coffee. Service is no frills -- you write down your orders by number, and pay your bill up front -- but the food comes to your table fresh, hot and fast. It's packed at lunch -- come before noon, or after one, or come for dinner when it's less busy. Communication is easier with some servers than with others but, whatever their mastery of English, all are friendly and obliging.

Phuong Nam

883 William Avenue, 783-1339


Wheelchair access

Four and a half stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2012 D3

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