Chicken soup does the trick for some people. But when I have a cold, my folk remedy of choice is pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup whose restorative powers I've found to be the culinary world's answer to Nyquil. Needless to say, then, a particularly vile head cold was all the excuse I needed recently to check out Pho Far East, a new Vietnamese restaurant in North Raleigh.
Well, sort of new. Pho Far East, a modest family-run eatery in one of the city's countless strip malls, opened six months ago. But matriarch Tsu Bui, who does the cooking, ran a similar restaurant called Far East from the late '90s to the early part of this century on New Hope Church Road.
The dining room of the new restaurant is larger and more inviting than that of its predecessor, though the decor -- whose highlights include an abalone collage of tropical fish, and vases of faux flowers among the condiment bottles on the tables -- is hardly what you'd call lavish. The menu is more extensive, too, if memory serves, and now includes a broad assortment of appetizers, noodle and rice dishes, and Vietnamese crêpes.
But it was pho my watery eyes fixed upon that first visit, and pho I ordered. To be precise, I ordered the house specialty pho dac biet, which serves up a bovine bonanza of flank steak, eye of round, brisket, shank, tendon, tripe and meatball. (Note to the squeamish: The pho is available with just about any combination of these meats you'd like. There's even a chicken version.) A few minutes later, a bowl roughly the size of a hot tub was set before me, the beef floating above a bed of thin noodles in a broth glistening with beef fat and faintly redolent of cinnamon.
It was just what the doctor ordered. As soon as I breathed in the steamy vapors of the soup, my sinuses started to clear. The first few sips soothed my sore throat, and proved so soul-satisfyingly tasty that I was tempted to forgo the customary doctoring-to-taste with the provided accompaniments. But the foodie in me won out over the invalid, and before long I was gleefully stirring bean sprouts, basil leaves, ngo gai (an herb with a flavor similar to cilantro), fish sauce, Sriracha and a squeeze of lime juice into the healing elixir.
Did I mention it's a big bowl? By the time I finished (OK, I left a few straggling noodles in the bottom), I was feeling drowsy, ready to head home for a nice, long restorative sleep.
Over the course of two subsequent visits, I sampled broadly across the menu's other offerings. Cha gio (Vietnamese spring rolls) were shatter-crisp and authentically greasy. A salad of lotus roots, shrimp and pork -- tossed with jalapeño slices and basil in a light, sweet chile dressing -- was a refreshing change of pace. Goi cuon (fresh summer rolls, served cold) were respectable, too, if not extraordinary. Same goes for an entree offering of vermicelli with grilled pork and spring rolls.
But the shrimp were overcooked and the sauce too greasy in com tom rim man, caramel shrimp with rice. And underneath the tantalizingly brown, crisp skin of roasted quail in an appetizer offering, the meat was disappointingly dry.
There's also a board listing a handful of daily specials. It's written in Vietnamese, but don't let that deter you. Just ask your server (who will likely be Tsu Bui's daughter, Hoa Trinh), and she'll translate. The reward for your curiosity might be roast duck spring rolls, or tender squid salad topped with chopped peanuts, or a Vietnamese crêpe filled with savory chopped pork.
But for my money, the best thing on the menu -- hands down -- is the pho. To make the soup, Bui simmers beef bones for 10 hours or more, until she has extracted every molecule of beefy goodness from them. She won't reveal which spices are in her secret pho blend.
But that's OK. I don't expect the pharmacist to give me the recipe for making my own Nyquil, either.