Phở Ngọc Hưng, Bailey’s Crossroads

There’s a part of Bailey’s Crossroads that’s so far west on Columbia Pike that it’s almost in Lake Barcroft – the “Welcome to Bailey’s Crossroads” sign is further east on Columbia Pike – but there’s an interesting little pocket of ethnic restaurants here, one of which is tucked a half-block off of Columbia PIke, on Courtland Street: the tiny Vietnamese restaurant, Phở Ngọc Hưng.

Although this looks like a Phở house, it both is and it isn’t: When you walk in, it has the typical setup, with Sriracha, plum sauce, napkins, and white plastic spoons on each table, but the menu is much more extensive. This is usually a giveaway that the soup is going to take a back seat to the rest of the items (Phở-only houses have a tendency to make better soup). However, this restaurant is somewhat unique, in several ways:

* The Phở here is better than average, with a very beefy broth with the AITB (All-Important-Telltale-Bubbles) floating on top of the bowl.

* The soup uses a lot of aromatics, but seems not to depend on a starter mix for its base.

* There are seven beers on offer.

* This is the only restaurant I’ve come across with a “Super Bowl” ($10.95); most places only have small and large.

* There is precisely one dessert on offer: tiramisu, of all things.

* Both the Phở and the other Vietnamese dishes seem to be better than average here.

* Since there are other entrees served here, the quality of the beef itself in the soup is much higher than the norm.

I waited a surprisingly long time for my order to be taken (usually, you’re approached within 15 seconds), but once it was, the service was very friendly – English language might be a barrier here, so be patient with the service staff.

A large bowl of #17 Phở Tái Nạm Gầu ($8.50) had a broth that was thick and unctuous, with surprisingly high-quality beef, and aromatic spices (most likely star anise) that were present on the nose but didn’t carry over onto the palate. A judicious application of Sriracha and plum sauce helped add a little kick (it’s rare when I add no sauces at all, but it happens at the very best of places; this is just below that).

Having a pretty good feeling about the food here, I decided to get an order to-go for later in the day: a #56 Cơm Gà Xào Sả Ớt ($9.95), Stir-Fried Chili Lemongrass Chicken – and this is critical – with Thigh instead of Breast (you have your choice). The thigh meat here is exceptional, and although the dish looks like a standard Chinese Chicken and Broccoli carryout, it’s anything but – dressed in a light-bodied brown sauce spiked with chili and lemongrass, it’s medium-spicy at most, and both the broccoli and the chicken had received full penetration, making it a really simple, but tasty entree. The rice (which I just dumped on the bottom) was unnecessary, but came in handy even later in the day.

Most people think Bailey’s Crossroads ends with Full Kee, but don’t forget this little hamlet of ethnicity, about a half-mile west on Columbia Pike – it’s an interesting pocket, and for the adventurous eater, worth a look.

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