The Vietnamese admiration for beef is boundless. It’s partly a legacy of French colonialism, as you’ll discover when the giggling waitress wheels the barbecue up to the table to whip up your bo nuong vi ($11.95).
As the blue flames lick through the perforated grill, she grabs—of all things—a giant gobbet of butter and rubs it over the domed surface. Butter in an Asian restaurant? Then she tweezes thin slices of cherry-red beef and deposits them on the grill, tugging at the edges to flatten the pieces. Amid smoke and sizzle, the beef develops a buttery flavor that’s unforgettable, especially when wadded in the edible rice paper provided, then garnished with lettuce, pickled veggies, mint leaves, and one or two of the fiery and fishy condiments.
Pho Grand is quite simply the best Vietnamese restaurant in town, its only competition being a couple of Bensonhurst joints. The beef dishes alone merit a visit. In addition to butter-sautéed beef, there’s bo luc lac ($7.50), a salad that deposits nuggets of smoky barbecued beef on a glistening morass of ripe tomatoes and crisp romaine, so that the meat juices mix with the tart vinaigrette. If you crave spicy, pick bo xao sate, a sauté of luscious beef strips with onions and dried red chiles. Nearly its equal is bo kho ($5.25), a hearty beef stew featuring potatoes and hunks of meat with trailing integuments. The menu describes it as curry. Really, it’s more like beef bourguignonne. As further proof of its Frenchness, the bowl comes with a demi-baguette, which magnificently soaks up the midnight-brown gravy. Dip away.
Offered in a dozen competing variations, the noodle soup called pho (pronounced “fa”) is spectacular. A compulsory first exposure to it should be the version called xe lua ($5.25). The soup seethes with thin rice noodles, like a cast-off platinum wig in the surf on a warm summer evening. The broth is especially amazing, flinging off scents of anise and cinnamon. As we ate it on Yom Kippur, my dining companion noted that his grandmother’s chicken soup was the only thing that rivaled it in richness. But the soup’s genius lies in the six distinct types of cow flesh deposited in the soup. The thin-sliced brisket is fatty and delicious; the eye of round is dumped in the broth uncooked, so that, if you pluck it out immediately, you can enjoy melt-in-your-mouth carpaccio; the rubbery white strips of tripe hide among the noodles; the flank steak tastes beefier than the brisket, and is less fatty, too; the tendon remains white and intractable; and the “navel” falls apart, engendering the question: What the hell is it? Shouldn’t navel be the absence of flesh?
Pho Grand’s rustic cottage of a space is located on a bustling strip in the new Chinatown, and an architect’s hand is discernible in the way it’s done up. Greenish light filters through a line of faux windows, and the high-ceilinged room is clad in cedar—though the expected smell has been banished with a coat of polyurethane. For non–beef eaters, there are the usual lemongrass stir-fries of chicken, squid, and shrimp; barbecued pork chops over rice; and spring rolls that arrive crisp and glistening from the grease. But hey, I’m sticking with the beef.