Midtown Alternatives to Mai's

Although old Chinatown is a shadow of its former self these days, there are still plenty of good Vietnamese restaurants lurking in shady strip centers, offering the same wonderful bowls of pho and helpings of com dia that they always have. And with Midtown stalwart Mai's out of commission for quite some time, now's the time to explore alternatives to get your pho fix...even if the other options don't offer 3 a.m. dining.

Just because Mai's was beloved by many doesn't mean it was the best food to be found in the area. Huynh (912 St. Emanuel) has held that title as of late, with its deeply authentic yet accessible food and friendly service. But there area other excellent options in the area, such as Pho Saigon (2808 Milam) with its brightly bustling dining room at lunch, Kim Tai (2602 Fannin) with its amazing banh mi and duck soup, Van Loc (3010 Milam) for decent food at slightly later hours (it's open until 11 p.m.) than most other places in the area, and our personal favorite, Pho Nga (2929 Milam).

Pho Nga, like Kim Tai, is very easy to miss from the road. Unlike Kim Tai, however, it has an abundance of parking both behind the building and on the street. You can tell that Pho Nga -- as with most older places in Midtown -- has seen better times. The glass blocks flanking the lacquered black bar and the remnants of a large fish tank hint at a former elegance that is now frayed and fading. But the food remains amazing.

Dining at Pho Nga on a quiet Thursday night, our only other companions in the restaurant were several tables of Vietnamese couples slurping contentedly at their bowls of pho, a clubby-looking couple dressed in their finest Ed Hardy who appeared to have gotten lost on their way to Link Lounge, and two Vietnamese police officers, looking weary until their plates of food appeared in front of them, instantly perking them up.

Ordering by number is recommended here if you aren't Vietnamese, as the owner -- who by all indications, runs the entire joint, from waiting tables to ringing you up at the end -- will likely not understand your mangled attempts at saying muc rang muoi. We setlled in that night with a glass of da chanh (freshly-made lemonade; you'll never look back) and some vegetable spring rolls. The spring rolls are enormous here, looking as if you could string a chain to two of them and use them as nunchucks (not saying you'd do much damage, but hey). They're hearty enough to eat as a meal on their own, the rice paper wrapped around tight clumps of bean sprouts, lettuce, mint and thick, crispy strips of lightly fried tofu.

After we'd worked our way through two of the spring rolls, our main dish clattered onto the table: the aforementioned muc rang muoi, or deep-fried salted squid. This particular dish is cooked in a very curious way at Pho Nga, one which we love. The squid is cooked with a traditional recipe -- gently seasoned with salt and pepper then fried in rice flour, with sauteed garlic and shallots for extra flavor. But the muc rang muoi here is served on top of a bed of vegetables that recalls bo luc lac, or shaking beef. Fat tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, strips of onions and fresh jalapenos add another layer of depth to the squid, which is not at all chewy or tough.

Other favorites at Pho Nga include some less traditional dishes (i.e., not the pho or the bun -- best pho in town is still at Pho Binh on Mangum). Soups are excellent here, like the hu tieu thap cam or the spicy tofu soup. Tofu seems to be a recurring theme, as the salted fried tofu is also a winner. Save room for cafe sua da at the end -- it's some of the best around -- but skip the skimpy che ba mau (which you'll see for yourself in the refrigerated case as you walk in).

Prices at Pho Nga are competitive with other places in the area, and when you consider the fact that you can actually park you car without any hassle -- no hustling for street parking, or braving the insane parking lot across the street at Pho Saigon -- it's actually quite a bargain.

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Katharine Shilcutt