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PHO SAIGON

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Call me a fool for pho. I could live exclusively on those big bowls of Vietnamese soup. If there's anything I miss about living on the West Coast it's the wide availability of pho: A fiver will get you pho -- always filling, fresh, hot and every time just a little bit different.

Ideally, each pho starts with the cook's own broth, so the stocks vary. Some are exclusively beef-based; others incorporate several meats into the simmer. (Where the market demands, some places offer a vegetarian soup stock.) What seasonings go into the stock -- does the chef lean toward sweet, salty or peppery? Then there's the meat, the vegetables and the noodles that go into the broth to make the meal -- each pho joint has its own style. (I'm partial to the places where the soup fixin's change from visit to visit -- presumably reflecting what is available or cheap or otherwise on hand.) And lastly, what garnishes and condiments will be offered for optional inclusion? Pho isn't really soup so much as is it a multifaceted meal suspended in liquid.

And now, the former Rose Room diner in Bloomfield is Pho Saigon -- just the kind of neighborhood nook with pho-on-tap I pine for. They've kept most of the old diner fixtures -- the Formica counter with the interlocking '50s boomerang motif, alternating gray stools and the quilted aluminum grill-back. Added are various Asian knick-knacks, a small Buddha shrine and Vietnamese pop music.

The menu offers eight pho bowls (seven beef and one chicken), five hu tiens (also meal-sized soups), and 11 other rice and noodle dishes. The appetizer menu is small -- just spring rolls and fried egg rolls -- but the beverage menu makes up for it with 13 soft-drink choices. I wanted to try the pennywort leaves juice, but this drink was not available that night. I settled for a fresh lemon drink, and my companion took café sua da -- the popular iced coffee made with sweetened condensed milk.

Each table has a little condiment/utensil pod with napkins, chopsticks, soupspoons, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, soy sauce, salt and pepper, plus toothpicks. Good for me: I like to adjust the seasonings myself, and I nearly always drop a chopstick.

On one visit I tried the pho ga, the chicken soup. The dish contained a curious cut of chicken -- perhaps cut from pressed chicken -- but there were ample strips of it, as well as many scallions. The broth was adequate and already salty enough, so I added only sliced chili peppers, bean sprouts, lime and Thai basil.

Meanwhile my companion tried one of the noodle dishes -- a barbecued pork chop, shredded pork, fried egg and "grilled meat" over vermicelli noodles. Additionally, the dish was garnished with sliced tomato, cucumber and scallions. The slice of "grilled meat" was made from a finely chopped mixture of mushroom, meats and spices -- like a Vietnamese-style meat loaf. The pork chop was thin, but still tender, and this was an impressive plate of vittles for $6.50.

On a second visit, we each had a soup. My companion had hu tien nam vang -- a fishier soup loaded with translucent rice noodles, barbecued pork, shrimp, fried garlic, green onions and small whole eggs. I had pho tai nam (rare beef and beef flank). The rare beef is my favorite added meat. Thinly sliced rare beef is added to the hot broth and it cooks literally on the way to your table. Because it's so thin and so freshly cooked, such beef tends to be more tender. Not so the piece of flank steak, which was on the leathery side.

That night our side plate of garnishes held bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime wedges and another fresh herb that somewhat resembled a dandelion leaf. (The server and the cook both apologized; they didn't know what it was called in English.) It smelled faintly of lemon, so I tore it up and added it to my soup without hesitation.

Currently, there are no desserts on offer but I recommend the lychee with ice drink from the beverage menu. It's a pleasant, mild fruit drink -- and after your meal, you can eat the whole lychees as a sweet. * * 1/2

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