Sweet mercy 


I'm sipping a drink that's creamy, mildly sacchariferous and effervescent, yet, simultaneously, so stinky in a curdled way that I have to tilt my head away from the glass, sucking through a straw to tolerate it. This is a sua hot ga — club soda enriched by condensed milk and egg yolk. If you're an adventurist, you should try it, especially in place of the "salty soda lemonade" (each $3) that's like a viscous, sour Sprite spiked with sea water. Not my thing.

I certainly appreciate the authenticity of Pho Lu'u's items, which isn't to say appreciation equals fondness. That comes clear again with the Thai Fruit and Multi Sweet Bean desserts ($3.50). Those two, served in drinking cups, are sugar monsters, each drowned in a sticky coconut crème syrup/milk. The fruit is already naturally sugared, and the mealy legumes' own starchiness is amplified. If you don't have ADD or adult-onset, type 2 diabetes before drinking these, you may after.

Same goes for the Boba smoothies ($3.75), some from fresh fruit and others from concentrate or powder. The taro flavor is a guilty treat but the papaya tastes synthetic, like sherbet mixed with the smell of "spring fresh" bathroom spray.

But enough about the drinks: You come to eat. And in that department, Pho Lu'u largely pleases.

In a couple months' time, 20-something husband/wife owners Linh Thach and Hieu Luu have developed what appears to be a booming business in their simple, blue-toned dining room. At 8 on a Friday night, we arrive to find no open tables; three bustling Vietnamese family big-tops in mid-meal; plus two walk-in to-go orders and two phoned-in GoWaiter orders ahead of us. Impressive.

For starters, the pork Vietnamese egg rolls ($5.25) are fantastic with a crunchy rice-paper shell and fresh lettuce leaves and accoutrements for dipping, and the shrimp and pork spring rolls ($3.50) bear a luscious peanut sauce dip. Presentations are pretty, and heaping basil-mint herb plates arrive before our entrées, glistening from a fresh ice-water bath.

Our shrimp-lemongrass bun ($7) sports nicely charred prawns and basic nuoc mam (that universal fish sauce mix to be poured over) that bears a touch more chili heat than most. It won't beat what you get at Saigon Cafe; however, two thin, sticky-sweet pork chops with a side of stringy, chewy pork-skin slivers and a quiche-like mushroom-rice egg cake ($9) are thoroughly fulfilling, especially for the price.

Which leaves the main attraction: around 25 mix-and-match options for pho ($5.75 to $8.75). I try the Pho Lu'u Special with tripe, tendon, meatball, brisket and filet mignon, quickly remembering why I prefer my tripe on a taco and the tendon left in the kitchen. But the other meats are delicious, in a Cambodian-influenced broth that a Vietnamese food-fanatic-friend believes is the best in town. It's bright, with subtle clove and anise flavors among the floral cocktail, but unfortunately it, like many menu items, is made with MSG.

A very friendly Linh says they use "as little as possible," as if to imply some must be used. But to avoid it, she's helpful in guiding us to a made-to-order veggie pho that's semi-sweet and wonderful in its own right, with generous broccoli and snow peas among the rice vermicelli soup.

Ultimately, it's that friendliness and adaptability that redeems the sugary shortcomings of Pho Lu'u. It's a likeable place, especially when seats are available.



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