The clear broth and delicate herbal seasoning of Vietnamese pho (beef noodle soup) won't bowl you over at first slurp if your tastes developed lapping at dark-roux gumbos, New England chowders or Campbell's liquid sodium. But pho induces cravings for subtlety, and so its refreshing shades of star anise, ginger and cinnamon tend to haunt novices into returning for another try. Plus, in acclimating to a Vietnamese restaurant, you learn that pho's accompanying baskets of herbs, as well as table condiments like hoisin, chile and fish sauces, are for the rigorous Vietnamese sport of self-seasoning. Once everyone has tweaked his own, no two bowls of pho taste alike.
If your knowledge of Vietnam's misty forests, fresh-catch fish markets and moped hum never extends beyond armchair travel, at least the area's Vietnamese population ensures that its soups require no airfare. Pho Hoa serves a funky but intriguing duck soup, while my favorite soup at Pho Tau Bay contains bouncy tapioca noodles, tofu and still-crisp vegetables. I believe Tan Dinh's chicken noodle soup could actually cure a minor ailment, and I've yet to taste pho as all-around sublime as the pho at Pho Quang.
Decent pho is better than no pho at all, however, and if you can't be bothered with the suburbs you should know that Doson Ha has rescued Uptown from its pho deficiency. Spirited with star anise and cinnamon, the translucent, darkly tinted beef broth at Doson's Noodle House is more aromatic than when I first tried it two months ago. Immediately before sending it to the table, Doson adds slivers of white onion, chopped green onion and clear rice noodles; bean sprouts, cilantro, licorice-strong basil and lemon come separately, to be added as you wait for the soup to reach a safe slurping temperature.
Pho-centric restaurants offer upwards of 15 different combinations of broth, noodles and beef parts. Doson's only version of pho contains beef balls and flank steak simmered to a dark chocolate brown. I like the meatballs' rubbery texture, typical of Vietnam's cuisine, but I prefer dead-rare flank steak added at the last minute, which allows the beef to cook gradually in the broth. That said, I'm eminently happy that pho exists Uptown at all, and the fact that Doson's sets me back at least $2 more than I'd like isn't as hard to swallow at 9:30 p.m., when most other pho houses have closed but Doson's always-smiling waitstaff continues to sling pho and Tsing-Tao beer.
Doson's Noodle House is, essentially, Chinese's Chinese: pho is the only difference between the two restaurants. The chef is the same, the three-page Chinese menu is unchanged and the decor still consists of burgundy-colored booths, lacquered goldfish tabletops and a bar specializing in tiki bar-style mixed drinks favored by college students. Reared in South Vietnam, Doson fell into the Chinese restaurant scene when he emigrated to San Francisco 18 years ago. Given Orleanians' limited interest in Vietnamese cooking at the time, it only made sense that he opened a Chinese restaurant here in 1997. Doson began introducing Vietnamese dishes to his customers two years ago, and the restaurant's recent identity shift is his attempt to market them. The changeover also represents the city's maturing taste for Vietnamese cuisine.
Chinese's Chinese's devotees are vehement about certain Chinese dishes, like fried shrimp covered in a sweet, black peppery goo; crispy orange beef with pithless candied orange peel; and fried, honey-coated bananas. All three are good, if in a sticky, deep-fried way. For the moment, however, Doson's short list of Vietnamese dishes makes for more enticing news.
His invincible formula for hot and sour shrimp soup served with rice, a southern Vietnamese specialty, results in a bottomless cauldron of shrimp, pineapple, cilantro, crisp bean sprouts and celery, and a faintly lemongrass-flavored broth that somehow brings you within half a breath of puckering. Hot chiles steeping in salty fish sauce come on the side. Dump in the whole lot.
Vermicelli rice noodle bowls served at room temperature are part salad, part grilled entree, a jumble of noodles, shredded carrot, cucumber, green onion, mint, crushed peanuts and either char-grilled shrimp, char-grilled pork, lemongrass beef or chopped summer rolls. You toss in a tangy dressing of mild fish sauce, citrus and lots of red chile -- if the noodles aren't swimming in it, ask for more. Doson's rice paper-wrapped spring rolls and fried summer rolls are unique, the former because they contain avocado and are fat enough to sustain an adult for two days; the latter because they're stuffed with mashed taro root and a brawny pork fat flavor. If you're easing into the Vietnamese thing, try a mild stir-fry of tender beef, vermicelli rice noodles, bean sprouts and cilantro.
Suburbanites, West Bankers and eastern Orleanians aren't likely to hit Doson's for pho, noodle bowls or spring rolls when their own neighborhoods are hotbeds for some of the best Vietnamese cooking available in the country. So far, cravings for roasted quail, gelatinous desserts, banh mi sandwiches and that viciously habit-forming coffee-condensed-milk sludge can't be settled at Doson's either -- or at any other Uptown restaurant. I suspect it's only a matter of time.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Chef Doson Ha, pictured here with daughter Alison, changed the name of his restaurant, Chinese's Chinese, to DOSON'S NOODLE HOUSE is an attempt to market his promising Vietnamese dishes.