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It pays to specialize 

Pho Duong Dong owner Dieu Pham doesn't speak much English, so her niece, Linda, is helping us. I've asked about chicken soup, and without translating, Linda answers, "We can make it, but we don't." Pham looks distressed and says something like, "It's not right."

Many Vietnamese restaurants cave and serve pho ga, but not Pham. It's partly a matter of finding it distasteful --- it's beef noodle soup, you knuckleheads --- but also about keeping things simple. Pham specializes.

So here, you will not find spring rolls, other appetizers, or Chinese food. Nope, just pho, a few noodle and rice dishes, and one sandwich. But what Dieu Pham does, she does very well.

Pho comes small ($4.85), medium ($5.50), large ($6), and extra large ($7). The large is right at the limits of my appetite; the XL must come in a bathtub. Pham's pho isn't as subtle and aromatic as that at Le Lemongrass, but it's plenty good. You can get it with rare beef, brisket, well-done flank, tripe, tendon, or beef balls. (I tried to explain, with little success, why Americans often react negatively to the term "beef balls," but not to "meatballs.")

Pho fans know that part of the appeal is what you put in and on it. A bit of hot sauce and hoisin is nice. But the fresh toppings are the real score. At Pho Duong Dong, you get the usual bean sprouts, Thai basil, and lime, but also sliced chilis and the rare saw-leaf herb (ngo gai). You put just enough of these on to eat quickly; the heat softens them and releases aromas. Top it, eat some, repeat.

Try a two-fisted approach, with sticks in your right hand and spoon in your left. Be sure to try mouthfuls with various toppings and combinations of meats. The saw-leaf herb --- like an earthier, denser cilantro --- is particularly yummy.

I also tried the bahn cahn gio heo, described as "pork jumbo noodle" but much more (same prices). Báhn cahn are thick, chewy rice noodles, but the soup also had shrimp and two pigs' feet. It wasn't for the faint of heart, but it was delicious.

There is only one bun dish, bun bo xao xa, sautéed beef with lemon grass over vermicelli ($6), but bun man Don Tremblay says it's his favorite in town. It has crisp-fried onion bits and super-fresh mint leaves that light it up. Com dishes have some kind of meat over rice, with a rice vinegar and fish sauce dip. They come with grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin, egg, or grilled chicken in various combinations ($5.50 to $6.50).

If you're on the go, try bahn mi, a light meal for the absurd price of $2.30. It's a toasted roll, spread with a pâté, then piled with Vietnamese bologna, roast pork, pickled radish and carrot, "red sauce," "yellow dressing" (note theme), and cilantro. Not an item for those who like to understand precisely what they are eating, it is, however, delicious and a bargain.

The largest portion of the menu is devoted to beverages. There is the strong Vietnamese espresso, hot or cold, with or without sweetened condensed milk. The iced soda with pickled lemon --- salty, sour, and sweet all at once --- rocks my world, reminding me of the salty plum soda I had in New York years ago.

There are also several fruit "milk shakes" (all $2.75), not all made with milk (some have condensed milk, some water). The avocado milk shake is thick and intense (my whole family shared one glass). Durian is sweet and on the pungent side (stinky like papaya). There is also sour sop, jack fruit, and sapoche. It's a weird-drink lover's paradise.

Pho is, quite simply, the perfect food: delicious, fun, nutritionally balanced, filling but not heavy. The day I first tried it in Washington, DC, I actually had it twice. Normally, a restaurant review means two trips; I've been to Pho Duong Dong six times. There are spoons on the tables, ferchrissakes. The place specializes, and for this obsessive-compulsive, it's close to heaven.

Pho Duong Dong, 182 Otis Street, 254-8120. Hours: Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Friday and Saturday till 9 p.m.)

Food tip

Several years ago, Mark Cupolo closed Victor Grilling Company and joined Tony Gullace at Max of Eastman Place. When Tony opened Max Chophouse, Mark was the natural choice for chef. With local sweet corn at its peak, Mark is serving the best corn chowder I have ever tasted. Note: Mark Cupolo will do a grilling demo in front of the Public Market office this Saturday, August 6, at 10 a.m.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas, www.SavorLife.com.

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