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Dining review: Decent food, iffy service at Pho-Nomenal Vietnamese Restaurant

January 31, 2014 Updated: January 31, 2014 at 7:53 am
photo - Pho-Nomenal Restaurant Wednesday January 22, 2014. Photo by Jeff Kearney
Pho-Nomenal Restaurant Wednesday January 22, 2014. Photo by Jeff Kearney 

Here's the thing about eating out. If a restaurant has decent food and outstanding service, I'll go back time and time again. I'll take my family. I'll recommend the place to others. But no matter what the quality of the food, if the service isn't good, I'm not likely to go back. Not even with a coupon.

Which leaves me in a quandary when writing about Pho-nomenal Vietnamese Restaurant. Two visits netted two very different experiences. While the food was decent, I'm not sure that's enough to overcome the iffy service. The restaurant focuses on two of my favorite foods, pho soup and bun noodle bowls, but neither one is a shining example of what Vietnamese food can be.

The interior of Pho-nomenal is very modern and open, with high ceilings and uncomfortable benches along the walls. The openness makes for a loud atmosphere when the restaurant fills up. On the first visit, the service was completely indifferent. There was no smile, no eye contact, no acknowledgement when items were delivered to the table and we said, "Thank you." In addition, the waiter appeared put out when we asked about the different sizes of pho bowls. During the second visit, we had the exact opposite service: extremely friendly and helpful. The waiter noticed a mistake with an order before we could mention it and took steps to correct it.

We tried the steamed dumplings ($5.50 for six). The exterior was soft and properly chewy. The interior was simple, with juicy pork and green onion, but my first (and second) bite encountered a chewy piece of gristle that didn't belong. When sampling the spring rolls ($4 for two, vegetarian or pork), we found them bland. The rolls were filled with soft noodles and lettuce, plus either shrimp and pork or grilled tofu. There were no other vegetables, like cucumber or carrot, and no fresh herbs like basil, mint or cilantro.

The combination noodle bowl ($10) had the same unfortunate problem with the grilled pork. Good flavor, but cut so that every piece was riddled with fat or gristle. The chicken and beef were good, and the shrimp was excellent, flavorful and tender. The fried egg rolls were on the bland side, and the noodles were overcooked, making them too soft and impossible to pick up without them falling apart.

The pho ($6.50 small-$10.50 large) I've sampled on two separate trips had the same high points and low points. A big minus: The broth had a good base flavor in the beef, seafood and vegetable varieties, but lacked the sparkle that comes from anise, ginger and other warm spices. Bland. The seafood version was particularly disappointing, with overcooked and chewy seafood items.

On the positive side, the beef version had perfectly cooked meat, with well-done brisket nestled next to rosy, paper-thin slices of steak. The vegetarian version was loaded with snow peas, carrots, onions, green onions and grilled tofu. The salad plate was loaded with Thai basil, sliced jalapenos, lime wedges, bean sprouts and something new, a serrated-edge leaf that the waiter identified as sawgrass, which has a flavor somewhat similar to cilantro.

On the second visit, I got to sample the combination rice plate ($10). This features many of the same elements as the bun bowl, but the quality of the pork was outstanding this time around. The mound of rice was sticky enough to easily eat with chopsticks, and the dish had a huge garnish of lettuce, tomato and cucumber topped with shredded pickled daikon radish and carrot. But with both the bun bowl and the rice plate, the dressing on the side seemed slightly overwhelmed by the fish sauce component.

One odd menu item stuck out, so I had to try it. The pan-fried egg noodles ($10 vegetable and tofu, $13 seafood) was delicious and a great contrast of textures. When the waiter brought it to the table, he noticed that it was vegetable instead of seafood and immediately offered to have the seafood prepared and brought on the side, so I wouldn't have to wait for a new dish to be prepared. The crunchy broccoli, julienned carrots, snow peas and mushrooms with grilled tofu were delicious in a light, savory gravy over skinny, crispy fried noodles. The noodles on the outer edge of the plate stay shatteringly crunchy, while the ones in the middle absorb the sauce and soften. You get fresh, crunchy and chewy all in one bite. I should have passed on the addition of seafood, though. The mussels had cold spots in the middle and the shrimp was rubbery.

I'm not certain the uneven service was enough to keep me away. But I'm equally uncertain that the food was good enough to bring me back.

Restaurant character: A Vietnamese restaurant focusing on pho soup and bun noodle bowls. The open interior gets loud when crowded, and the service and food can be uneven.

Rating total: 2.75 out of 5 stars

Food: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Ambiance: 3 out of 5 stars

Service: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Address: 5825 Stetson Hills Blvd., Suite 100, 80923

Contact: 597-0277, phonomenal

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Mondays- Saturdays, noon-8 p.m. Sundays

Entrees: $6.50-$10.50

Alcohol: No

Credit cards: Yes

Vegetarian options: Yes, pho ($6.50-$8.50), bun noodle bowl ($8.50)

Wi-Fi: No

what's onlineAs of Jan. 22:

- 96 percent of 25 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon

- 3.5 out of 5 stars based on 28 reviews on Yelp

- Active on Facebook; search "Pho-nomenal Restaurant"

- Two violations were corrected during a November inspection by the El Paso County Health Department.

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