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What the Pho in Duluth



My recent Vietnamese food bender continued this week with the quirky What the Pho in Duluth. I was intrigued at first by the cheeky name, but the food here is no joke. As you might imagine, the house specialty is pho, and a fine version is served here. But it's not the only reason to make it out to this terrific restaurant.

Saigon Kick: Servers whiz through the tiny dining room, steaming bowls of soup in one hand and mountainous platters of lettuce and fresh herbs in the other. A Vietnamese family sprawls in one corner, the mother with her sandals off and feet tucked underneath her. She sips her pho serenely as her two rambunctious boys battle it out over skewers of char-grilled meat across the table. Opposite them, a couple expertly dips stiff sheets of rice paper in a bowl of hot water, softening them, and commence to wrap their own spring rolls. All around, chatter pervades in a mix of English and Vietnamese.

Nice Buns: We started the meal with an order of fried egg rolls ($2.50). They arrived crispy and piping hot, stuffed with ground pork and cellophane noodles, and as tasty as they were promptly forgotten once the bun arrived. Bun is heaven on a heaping platter: skewers of char-grilled meat served with lettuce, rice noodles, herbs and shredded carrot ($5.50-$6.95). There was much licking of fingers as everyone at the table softened rice paper sheets in hot water, pulled hunks of pork from skewers and fashioned their own spring rolls.

Pho Real: Pho is the star of the show here, with more than 25 variations available ($5.25-$5.95). The base is a mild but fragrant beef broth, flavored with star anise, ginger and scallion. Thin-sliced beef and brisket are standard additions to the noodles and broth, but the more adventurous can opt for tripe or beef tendon. What goes in next is up to you: A platter of condiments includes basil, bean sprouts, jalapeños and limes, and each table is stocked with fish sauce and chili sauce. The end result is a head-on collision of earthy and bright, the fresh herbs and citrus offering a pleasing counterpoint to the meaty broth.

Make Like a Tree: Be forewarned -- the folks at What the Pho are serious about closing on time. The sign out front says that they're open until 9 p.m. on Sundays, but the Sunday evening I was there, they were shooing away customers at 8:30, and by 8:55 they were already putting the chairs up on the tables. We were still greedily sucking down the last noodles in our bowls of pho, but we got the hint. In the car on the way home, as we sipped sweet Vietnamese coffee from Styrofoam cups, there was nothing to do but bask in the afterglow of a really great meal.

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