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Dac Phuc San Jose: great pho & good banh cuon

Alice Patis | Feb 28, 2006 02:04 PM

I used to come to Dac Phuc a few years ago for northern-style pho, and stopped for no apparent reason. I went back last week because all the talk of Hung Ky banh cuon made me hanker for the banh cuon at Dac Phuc.

While there I needed to remind myself of the pho, so I also ordered a Pho Tai Gau (rare steak and fatty brisket), $4.95 for the regular size. I asked the server whether the gau has a little fat or a lot, and also asked whether that the banh cuon is poured/steamed in-house over a cloth covered steamer. He confirmed that the gau is not overly fatty, and the banh cuon is poured in house; I’m not sure he understood my poor Vietnamese asking if it’s the cloth-covered steamer and not a nonstick pan but he kept nodding & saying yes.

The pho came first, very quickly as usual, and very scalding hot. The tai is medium rare (I’ve had rare before, but maybe the broth was hotter today), and very tender. It’s sliced thin, not thick as described by jatbar.com. The first spoonful reminded me why I used to like Dac Phuc; it’s one of the rare places that makes the broth just fine without any need for doctoring or additions. Not so salty that you need a big squirt of lime, not sweet, not overly pungent of anise. The “muoi pho” or pho flavor/fragrance is subtle. This is a classic bowl of northern style pho. But I’ve been used to eating southern style for too long, so I wanted more “muoi pho”. I like that you get lime here, not lemon, and added a few drops just for that limey fragrance. By the way, the hot chile sauce is in fact very hot, and they do warn you even if you look like you can handle it.

Besides the tai meat, my order mistakenly came with tendon (gan), instead of brisket (gau), but it was a godsend of a mistake. I’ve stopped ordering tendon because it’s never been anything special, but here, the tendon is meltingly soft, with a bit of unctuous chewiness and a hint of bounce in the chew.

After I finished my pho, the banh cuon came. This is a small plate but cheap ($4.95). The rolls are steaming hot and so is the plate, making me wonder if they simply reheated pre-made rolls by steaming this plate; but my order took over 20 minutes to arrive so I’m not sure. The wrapper is very soft with a stretchy chewiness. Obviously poured over a cloth steamer and not a pan. I think the batter’s flour/water ratio may be on the wet side but I’m picking nits. The filling has a nice balance of meat to cloud ears, but could use more pepper. The shallots are the poor point; store bought and too tough/chewy. The gio meat is served in cubes, not slices, and is just ok (kind of porky tasting). There’s not much cilantro and I added torn basil from my pho garnish plate, which really made it yummy even if it’s not authentic. The dipping sauce is nicely spicy but a bit too sweet, so I added the remainder of the lime from my pho garnish plate, and some splashes of nuoc mam from the table bottle. It’s a good basic plate of banh cuon, and the texture is right on (better texture than Quan Da’s), but I don’t know if it would knock any one’s socks off. But maybe that’s just me being picky.

But I’d return for the pho any day. I used to think of Dac Phuc as a sort of Pho Nazi; their menu was very small, you had to serve your own utensils and tea, and if you started making requests you’d get attitude (I once came with a friend who kept asking if they had any pho ga, or anything with chicken and was pretty much told “no soup for you!” as the server took away her menu. Then menu is still small, but the attitude’s all gone. The server even brought me my tea!

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