SOUTH PORTLAND – The comfortable and casual space inside Pho Hanoi, a new Vietnamese restaurant in the Mill Creek shopping area near the southern end of the Casco Bay Bridge, provides a perfect setting to get acquainted with pho or to enjoy it again if you already know it well.

The bowls of rice noodles with well-made beef stock complicated with spices, called pho, make an inexpensive, satisfying meal that needs no translation.

Chef/owner Minh Loc, who is from Vietnam, never worked in a restaurant before he opened Pho Hanoi. He owns a company called Peter Hardwood Floors, which does installation and refinishing in the Portland area.

“My mom and dad always dreamed of opening a restaurant and decided, why not now? They found a good building with a lot of people going by,” said Bao Loc, a son of the owner who works at Pho Hanoi as a waiter and is a sophomore at South Portland High School. “We do pretty well.”

Ten beers are served, including Shipyard, Tsing Tao and Sam Adams (all $4).

Reddish-brown wood-grain Formica table tops look attractive next to the stained beaded-board wainscoting on both sides of the narrow center of the restaurant. One wall forms a partition that closes off the open kitchen. Pretty embroidered landscapes of rice fields and rivers decorate the opposite wall.

Before you get started on the soups, there is a list of good appetizers, among them fresh spring rolls that are both as simple as they can be and perfectly delicious. Goi cuon thit nu o’ng, two grilled pork spring rolls ($4.95), presents small slices of savory grilled pork bundled with shredded iceberg lettuce in a rice-noodle wrapper. Dipped in a little salty-sweet hoisin sauce, the spring roll combines refreshing mild crunch and savory meat.

Banh xeo, a Vietnamese (and Cambodian) crepe with shrimp ($8.50), is listed on the menu with the advice that it takes 15 to 20 minutes to make. In fact, our pho came to the table before the crepe did.

But it should not be missed. According to Bao Loc, the crepe is made with rice flour, egg and chopped spring onion. Shrimp is sauteed in the pan first, then the batter is added and cooked until it sets and holds a thin edge of golden brown crispiness. Then it’s folded around bean sprouts and served with a platter heaped with uncut leaves of iceberg lettuce and branches of basil. Dipping sauce made with fish sauce, water, sugar, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar is the final touch.

Lindsay Sterling, who writes a blog at, had already acquainted me with this dish with her informative story, “Cambodian Bahn Chow,” although Pho Hanoi’s version is made differently. After the server reminded me how it goes, I picked up the curved leaf of lettuce, set pieces of crepe and bean sprouts inside, and topped them with a basil leaf. I folded it, if I could, before dipping it in the sauce. It all comes together in an intriguing combination of watery lettuce, tangy sauce, rich and mild egg and an occasional shrimp. If eating this wasn’t exactly graceful, the prep work was easy to do. This dish makes a full meal on its own.

A little prep is just as much a part of the pleasure of pho: a plate of bean sprouts, basil leaves and sawtooth coriander, along with little dishes of sliced green chili peppers and fresh lime. Adding each ingredient to the pho creates individual concoctions, and three bottles of different kinds of hot chili sauce on the table, along with pickled red chili peppers, leaves the heightening of the spice level entirely in your hands.

The broth for pho tai with sliced eye of round beef ($7.50 for a small bowl, $8.50 for a medium bowl and $9.50 for a large bowl) and for all the beef pho is made with beef bones, and red onion, white onion and cinnamon are some of the other ingredients, Bao Loc said. Its silky texture and mild appetizing flavor are the essence of the dish, while the slices of red eye-of-round steak, turning paler as you watch them cook, are like a grace note. Add crunchy bean sprouts and squeeze in lime juice, and you have a steamy bowl worth both inhaling and drinking down with the china spoons set on each table.

Other versions of pho contain sliced meatballs, firm, thin slices of ground and spiced beef, tripe, tendon and flank steak.

Chicken noodle soup, pho ga, is popular. Its salty broth seemed less subtle than the beef, and its slices of white chicken meat were plain and bland despite the salt. Pho hai san, seafood noodle soup, holds shrimp, squid, shrimp balls, fish balls and imitation crab along with the generous serving of noodles.

Vermicelli bowls with grilled shrimp, grilled pork or grilled sliced beef are also on the menu, along with bun bi cha gio, vermicelli with julienned pork skin. Although it isn’t listed, you can also order soup made with vegetarian broth.

No dessert is served. 

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s website,


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