After my friend/tipster Paul Kwan insisted on having not one, but two admittedly delicious Hakka meals at a nondescript, perpetually empty Geary Boulevard restaurant, which then announced it was closing three days after I submitted a review (my editors killed the story), Kwan had a lot of making up to do. He immediately called me about Pho Ha Noi, a new Vietnamese noodle house and cafe he discovered.
"It’s really good," he told me, knowing that I’m a loyal fan of the elegant broths at Bodega Bistro on Larkin, as he is. "It’s a hit. Everyone is going." So, we joined the crowd for lunch one day at yet another joint in the Richmond.
"This had better be exceptional," I told him. "Our dining out relationship is on the line."
Kwan, a Vietnam-born Chinese chef and filmmaker, already had nosed out his favorite dishes on Pho Ha Noi’s small menu. We began with a brilliant chicken salad, a pile of julienned cabbage and carrots, fresh herbs and super-moist chicken with lively free-range flavor.
Crunchy bits of deep-fried shallot and toasted peanuts added more excitement along with a tiny dab of house-made red chile sauce, powerfully hot and tart. This incendiary condiment must be used withcaution.
Equally delicious but more exotic: spongy, dill-infused fish cakes popped into the mouth with light, house-made vegetable pickles and a rice noodle salad dressed with sautéed scallions and toasted peanuts. Everything sparkled.
Kwan, who comes from Hanoi, pointed out that the caramel sauce in clay pot catfish was reduced and intense, just the way everyone in the northern part of the country likes it. That mysterious gravy — smoky, sweet and savory — works perfectly with the earthiness and density of catfish. Try the catfish dish with fried rice noodles browned with bits of barbecue pork, bean sprouts and scallions.
A similar preparation with rice instead of noodles, Vietnamese fried rice, stands alone as a meal, full of egg, bits of Vietnamese sausage-like "paté" — shrimp and scallions, everything smoky from the wok.
At dinner another day I had an excellent chicken curry distinguished by chewy, bone-in hunks of free-range chicken, including delicious pieces of back and neck, cooked to order in a spicy coconut-milk gravy. Hunks of potato melted into this soulful dish, another dish for which I would return.
But Vietnamese soup and rice noodles are the most popular dish here, a full meal in a bowl that satisfies, restores and never weighs you down. Kwan is wild about the duck and bamboo shoot soup, unique to Pho Ha Noi, with super-thin rice vermicelli noodles.
He seasoned the poached pieces of duck in gingered dipping sauce. The broth was perfumed with cilantro and rau ram, a sharper cilantro-like herb with pointy leaves. The dried bamboo gives the broth yet another subtle layer of flavor.
I insisted on a bowl of rich chicken broth with wide rice noodles and sensually moist poached chicken breast, a winner.
I came back on my own for a bowl of classic pho bo, a huge bowl of clear, steaming beef broth, fragrant and flavorful. It had a generous portion of tissue-thin slices of raw beef — which cook instantaneously in the hot steaming broth — plus thin slices of cooked brisket and a huge rustic beef meatball with a nice coarse texture, cut in half.
Lemon grass scented the broth, along with slivers of raw onion and scallion that released their flavors into the noodles with the boiling-hot broth. Though served only with lime wedges and slices of jalapeño — no sprouts, no basil — each bite was complete. The star dish at Pho Ha Noi deserves its billing.
Iced Vietnamese coffee, a coffee reduction really, becomes a dessert when mixed with sweetened condensed milk. It comes in a tall soda glass with a straw.
Kwan was right about the specialness of this place. Young, pretty, chef/owner Sarah Le, who actuallyhas two other pho spots on Noriega, created Pho Ha Noi as a complete concept.
Cute, outgoing waitresses all in black will tell you their favorites. They wait on you once and remember you the next time you walk in.
The dining room has a smart red, green and yellow color scheme and a mirrored wall. But the food is the thing and it has real spirit. True to form, Kwan just knows.
IF YOU GO
Quan Ngon Pho Ha Noi No. 3
Location: 726 Clement St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues, San Francisco
Contact: (415) 668-8896
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: $5.50 to $11.95
Recommended dishes: Chicken salad, pho bo, curry chicken with rice, deep-fried fish cake, Hanoi-style fried rice, catfish in clay pot, iced Vietnamese coffee
Credit cards: Cash only
Reservations: Not accepted