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It's comfortable, though, and casual enough for a group of Vietnamese-American college students to giggle together at one table, a young man to rub the belly of his pregnant wife at another and, at mine, a Southern gentleman named Truman to expound on the merits of an avocado smoothie.
"I know it sounds dreadful," he said, taking long sips of the pale-green shake from a plastic cup, "but it's really creamy and delicious. Not too sweet but not savory, either. And refreshing."
It's also the most-ordered beverage here, far outselling the strawberry and mango versions. Pho Hoa doesn't serve booze, but it offers plenty of the traditional caffeinated, sugary concoctions so well-liked in Vietnam: café den dá, iced coffee (made with half and half instead of the usual sweetened condensed milk), and iced and hot teas.
You can get a glass of regular old unsweetened iced Lipton, too, which is a divinely cool asset when you've ordered one of the terrific, spicy bánh mì sandwiches here, all prepared with fresh jalapeños. I'm crazy about the "house special" sandwich, made with sliced-pork "meatloaf" — it looks like pale lunchmeat, but don't let that stop you — charbroiled pork and beef, julienned carrots, peppers and cilantro on a marvelous baguette. It's cheap, too.
The rest of the Pho Hoa repertoire isn't so unsubtle, although the pho bowls are served with a plate of fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, basil) and sliced jalapeños for seasoning the dish to one's taste. The beef broth — the soul of this signature dish — will taste a shade sweet to some, but I think it's just right: lightly gingery with notes of anise and cloves. Delicious.
I've indulged myself on several of the house rice plates, mostly topped with marinated meats and fragrant with lemon grass (including the most lusciously tender pork chop I've eaten in a long time). One of Nguyen's signature dishes is "Shaken Beef" (some restaurants call it "Shaking Beef"): succulent hunks of marinated beef, wok-seared with onion slices. (Nguyen won't reveal any of the spices, but garlic, soy, fish sauce and a dash of sugar resonate among the flavors.) It's as close to barbecue as you can get at Pho Hoa.
Not all of the restaurants in the Pho Hoa chain offer appetizers, but Nguyen makes light, fresh summer rolls that are plump, chilled creations made of vermicelli, pink shrimp and herbs wrapped in rice paper. He serves them with classic nuoc cham dipping sauce: fish sauce, garlic, lime juice. (It's also worth asking for Nguyen's warm peanut sauce.) A heartier, equally delicious roll is made with roasted pork instead of shrimp; another comes with grilled pork and bits of fried-egg roll wrapper, producing an unexpected crunch. Pho Hoa's most popular starter, unsurprisingly, is a hefty plate of bánh tôm cô ngu: sticks of sweet potato and pieces of shrimp, battered together and deep-fried to a feathery but satisfying crispiness.
There are no fewer than 16 toppings, all meat, ranging from brisket to tripe, available for the pho bowls (in two sizes, the larger of which is enough for two meals), and there's a hot-and-sour seafood version with squid, salmon, shrimp and chopped pineapple. (A vegetable broth is available upon request, but the menu is not vegetarian-friendly.)
Because this is a fast-casual chain, all the dishes arrive on hard plastic plates emblazoned with the corporate logo. Nguyen spent his first years in Kansas City living in the Northeast, but he moved to Johnson County several years ago. He plans to open at least two more Pho Hoa restaurants here. Will he have to change the recipes or upgrade the dishware for that demographic?