when you've got a low-level head cold that's been lingering for weeks? Anything involving melted cheese is completely out of the question; same goes for heavily spiced dishes since you're reduced to mouth-breathing. Vietnamese turns out to be a soothing option. What low-key Pho Tan-Tan lacks in charm, it makes up for with aromatic broths, comforting rice dishes and quick, gracious service. The sterile, strip-mall interior doesn't invite you to linger, but it's certainly large enough to find a corner to hide in and sniffle over your soup.
The tables and chairs in Pho Tan-Tan's dining room are completely generic and the floors are worn, but the TV plays a continual loop of Vietnamese pop videos that will leave you transfixed. I completely drop my end of dinner chat when a clip comes on of a young singer serenading a stadium of howling teenagers, his tousled hair frosted honey-blond. A group vigorously slurping at a nearby table brings me out of my TV trance, and I turn my attention to the steaming bowl of pho ($5.25) in front of me. Gently spiced with star anise, cloves, and a hint of cinnamon, the slices of eye-round beef are just a hair past rare, poaching in the broth. Delicate, filmy rice noodles warm and fill the belly.
Broken rice is twice as nice:
Com Tam Bi Cha ($5.25) is an unbeatable combination on a cold night. Steamed rice is topped with feathery strands of shredded pork, baked egg dusted with ground peanuts, and slices of a fluffy baked omelet. Wood ear mushrooms, bits of roasted pork and strands of vermicelli noodles are packed into the moist and surprisingly flavorful baked egg. The dish is accompanied by nuoc mam, Vietnam's racy signature dressing of rice vinegar, chili, shredded carrot and fish sauce.
On a second visit, we try two noodle dishes recommended by friends who regularly visit the restaurant. Mi Quang ($5.95), a beautifully presented rice noodle dish, offers a host of flavors and textures, from the licorice bite of Thai basil to the subtle tanginess of banana blossom. Bean sprouts and thinly sliced raw onions offer refreshing crispness to the chewy, almost rubbery, thick rice noodles. Shards of rice crackers speckled with black sesame seeds rise architecturally from one side of the bowl. Just enough spicy broth is added to coat the noodles and make them slip around in the bowl. I'm intrigued by the contrast in every bite -- ground peanut here, tender sliced beef there --- but some of the meat bits are worth passing over. Hard scraps of chicken with attached blubbery fat and skin bob around in tangle of noodles, as do nubs of pork that seem a bit past their prime.
The Bun Mang Vit ($5.95), a rich, ducky broth with rice noodles and a raft of bamboo shoots, is paired with a salad of shredded cabbage, slices of duck, fried onions and ground peanuts with basil and mint. We slurp along in chorus with the other chopstick-wielding patrons, content to warm ourselves over huge noodle bowls while the weather outside goes south.