To say the least, Pho-N-Thai is a study in contrasts.
There's the newbie's affordable menu of mostly Asian plates, but which also includes buffalo wings, schnitzel and a Philly cheese steak. There's the sharp dining room with dark plum and cream walls and thin bamboo shades, which only partially obscure the gloomy bars over the windows. And there are the mother-of-pearl-inlaid art blocks forced to compete for attention with the large flat-screen TV. (During our dinner, it showed the latest, Asia-staged Rambo installment, complete with arrow-skewered skulls.)
Lastly, there are dishes that clearly work, even shine, and dishes that wind up average or fall flat, proving once again that large, serve-all menus tend to yield more 6s and 7s than perfect 10s.
The green curry ($6.25 lunch; $7.25 dinner), which we selected with pork to accompany the bamboo, peppers, green beans and Thai eggplant, is one of those 10s. Ordered hot, its coconut milk body was the velvet-wrapped hammer of lip-numbing goodness, and proof of chef and co-owner Chnay Duk's 20 years of experience. His wife, Soyin, also cooks and works the floor, while co-owners Jeff and Nicole Natividad help out up front. Everyone is well-versed on the menu and super-friendly, and service is fast.
However, the Pad Thai ($5.99 to $7.50), my usual barometer of excellence, failed to excite. Ordered with shrimp that arrived somewhat tough, it delivered a sauce that needed more of everything: fish sauce, lime, peanut flavor, character.
Also left off, by request, was the MSG. Soyin says they use very little, mostly in the Thai and Vietnamese offerings, and none in the yakitori plates. I would argue this flavor enhancer/neurotoxin doesn't belong at all, especially since like-flavors in the umami spectrum can be extracted naturally from items like seaweed. Maybe the Pad Thai would have worked with it, but outstanding versions sans spook-factor abound locally.
Besides, the Duks know how to go it fine with other bottled sauces in their otherwise homemade blends, as evidenced by the sweet, vinegary citrus fish sauce that enlivens the grilled noodle bowls ($6.99 to $10.50). A lunchtime sesame chicken special ($5.99) proved the chefs' proficiency again, with a thick honey and oyster sauce over lovely, lightly battered nuggets.
We also enjoyed our combination drunken noodle dish ($6.95/$7.95), ginger-rich pad Khing vegetable stir-fry ($5.99/$6.99), peppery house-made pork egg rolls ($4.25), and the loaded hu tieu nam vang ($6.99 to $7.99), an authentic pho soup sporting barbecue pork and seafood. But best of all: three free refills on a candy-sweet, giant Thai iced tea cup that costs the same $2.50 as everyone else's standard single-pour.
There are no desserts presently, and a final menu page of specials won't be available for another month or two, as the outfit builds business. Given that it's tucked next to a liquor store behind Denny's, location is probably Pho-N-Thai's greatest hurdle.
But the allure of cheap and largely yummy Thai downtown — again, and finally — should be mighty. And though I could go for papaya salad or larb in place of cheese sticks, I'll be back for that green curry.