Not Your Dad's Mom-and-Pop's Ethnic Eatery

adds dash of culinary expertise to Armenia's melting pot

click to enlarge THREE'S COMPANY.: Co-owners -- from left, Mike - Nguyen, Cathy Ly and Hung Tran -- honed their trade - in California, Colorado and other places before - opening Pho99. - Susan F. Edwards
Susan F. Edwards
THREE'S COMPANY.: Co-owners -- from left, Mike Nguyen, Cathy Ly and Hung Tran -- honed their trade in California, Colorado and other places before opening Pho99.

Tampa's North Armenia Avenue is dotted with mom and pop restaurants representing the most recent immigrants from the Caribbean, South America and Asia. They crop up like mushrooms and disappear just as fast. Often, a visit is a bit like eating in someone's home, with the television on, kids doing homework, Dad cooking and Mom waiting tables. You don't expect fine cuisine, just substantial fare that stays with you awhile and barely dents a 10-dollar bill — even with a beer.

That's pretty much what I expected when I stopped at Pho 99, a new noodle house that occupies a place that was once a Peruvian restaurant that was once a Southern fried fish place. I ordered my favorite dish, grilled shrimp on vermicelli with a light, sweet vinegar sauce. The closest thing on the menu also included grilled pork ($5.95). I asked if I could get it without the pork. No problem.

The shrimp were ample in size and number, perfectly cooked, moist and tender with charred tails adding a hint of smoky flavor, and the vermicelli was perfectly al dente. The dish had a couple of other special touches: It was garnished with smoky fried tiny onions, and the sauce had a hint of heat, just enough to give the tongue a tingle but not too hot for even the most delicate palate. The vegetables — shredded lettuce, carrots and cucumbers — were fresh and crunchy, garnished lightly with fresh Vietnamese basil and crushed peanuts.

The Thai iced tea ($2.95), strong boiled black tea with sugar, half-and-half and a dollop of whipped cream, was rich and sweet enough for dessert and packed a caffeine wallop to rival that of cafe con leche.

Since Pho 99 aced my shrimp and vermicelli test, I had to return for dinner with friends to sample more items on the small but intriguing menu.

We started with the spring rolls ($2.95 for an order of two) and found them as good as any we'd ever tasted: high-quality pork and fresh shrimp, very light on the basil, with a surprise small cylinder of fried rice paper, all wrapped in a delicate, not tough or chewy, rice paper. The peanut sauce was fresh and creamy, not thick and gloppy the way it sometimes is. The quail appetizer ($7.95) consisted of two small birds, quartered, dusted with a spice medley reminiscent of five-spice, and roasted to crispy morsels served on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes.

Our server recommended the green mussels in the house's special sauce ($5.95), and it was one of the highlights of our wonderful meal: fat green mussels blanketed with a mayonnaise and chili sauce and garnished with chopped scallions.

Of course at a place called Pho 99, you've got to try the pho (large $5.95, small $4.95, $3.95 on Wednesdays). I never liked pho before. Usually the noodles are too fat and slippery, and the meat is an icky consistency that suggests it has been ground and reconstituted. The meat in the Tai nam sounded promising, described on the menu as rare steak and well-done flank, and indeed it was thinly sliced, high-quality meat, tender and succulent in a rich, flavorful broth. Even the noodles were satisfyingly firm. It was served with a side of crunchy bean sprouts and fresh basil and cilantro.

Cook and part-owner Mike Nguyen describes pho as Vietnamese comfort food and recommends the seafood pho with shrimp, squid and crab. I haven't tried it yet, but it's at the top of my list of things to order on my next visit.

The crispy rice with sauteed shrimp ($8.95) was the standout of the evening. It's a special family recipe for a traditional Vietnamese dish. First came a round, flat molded cake of rice, lightly fried to attain a crispy crust and topped with fried onions and fresh scallions. Next came a dish of tender braised baby bok choy and a small bowl of shrimp in a rich, golden fish sauce to be spooned over the rice. Absolutely delicious.

One of the house specialties is Lau Thai, a Thai seafood hot pot ($19.95). Our server, co-owner Cathy Ly, brought out a portable gas burner with a pot of rich, red, lemongrass-flavored broth floating cubes of tofu; a dish with green mussels, squid, shrimp and swordfish; and bowls of vermicelli, cabbage and a fragrant green leafy vegetable I have never seen before. Since we were new to the hot pot, she showed us how to add first the seafood, then the greens to the pot in stages. The noodles are put in bowls, and the soup is served over them. It's a stunning dish that could easily satisfy four, especially with an appetizer or two.

Such showy dishes nearly overshadowed the more modest but quite good rotisserie chicken dish ($6.25) served with a delicious dark brown soy-based sauce flavored with leeks, and a scoop of tasty tomato rice.

There was no dessert, but the thick, rich, sweet Thai coffee ($1.99) went down like a piece of chocolate cheesecake and kept me cranking well into the night. Alcoholic fare consists of bottled American beer ($2.50) and generous glasses of drinkable California jug wine ($5).

Pho 99 is clearly not just another mom and pop ethnic eatery whose main attraction is plenty of cheap food and a homey atmosphere. The ingredients are fresh and high quality, prepared and cooked with a light, expert hand and subtle culinary flair. And yet the place is still very inexpensive and homey. The three owners, all Vietnamese, are always there. They've been in the restaurant business for many years in California, Colorado and other places. Nguyen learned to use the freshest, highest quality ingredients while cooking in Japanese restaurants. His sister, who owns pho restaurants in Denver and Los Angeles, taught him Vietnamese cooking. Nine is a lucky number in Vietnam, says Nguyen, and that's the reason for the name, to give them luck. I have a feeling they're going to find plenty of luck and success with their new venture.

Pho 99 is going to be very popular with people looking for quality food at a decent price in a warm and unpretentious atmosphere. I know it's going to be one of my favorite places.Contributing Editor Susan Edwards is the first of several guest critics who will share their beefs and enthusiasms while we search for a new food editor. If you know and love food, and most of all, like to write about it, contact Editor Jim Harper at [email protected]. Planet restaurant critics dine anonymously and the Planet pays for their meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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