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Vinh Phat delivers on an essential comfort food.

Pho for the Soul


I like fancy restaurants. I enjoy properly attentive wait staff. And there's something reassuring about a clientele that's well-dressed. However, as with so much, in the world of dining, less is sometimes more. Less service, less chic, less hype. Sometimes all it is about is the food, or in the case of Vin Phat, a particular kind of food.

It was suppertime; late, actually; and in the middle of winter; dark and cold. No food in the house; wife had a head cold; basically miserable all around and in need of comfort food, soul food. "Soup," I said. "Soup will cure these winter blahs." But where to go? Then I remembered a tiny house next to an Asian market behind the Tan A grocery store on Horsepen Road.

Know the place? No? Well Vin Phat is a Vietnamese restaurant that seems to operate on the less-is-more principle, and if you ever want a big bowl of feel good, head here. But leave your demanding nature and fussbudget attitude at home with your pumps and your Cole Haans because Vin Phat is about as no-nonsense as it gets. Vinh Phat is downright homey, and the specialty of the house is soup, or as it is called in Vietnam, pho.

But pho is no ordinary soup. It's is a rich, beef-based stock prepared with hours of care and poured piping hot over a pile of rice noodles topped with sliced spring onions. Of the 29 entrée items on the menu at Vinh Phat, 17 of them are pho. The only difference among them is what you decide you want in the broth, basically a selection of beef cuts that you won't find in most restaurants — cuts like soft tendon, brisket, flank, sliced meatballs (not your standard meatball) and tripe.

There are two sizes of pho: large ($5.50) and small ($4.50). We both ordered large bowls of Pho No. 1 — unless you speak the language, stick with the numbers — which is the house specialty and which has everything in it. I confess, we couldn't stomach the tripe which we picked out with our chopsticks, much to the amusement of our hostess when we told her about it later.

Pho also comes with a plate of bean sprouts, lime wedges, hot peppers and Vietnamese mint and basil to add to the bowl. With a squeeze of lime, a ribbon of hot chili sauce from the bottle on the table — emphasis on the hot — the winter blahs and head cold congestion melted away.

For non-soup types, the 12 other menu items include barbecue pork, various beef-noodle and rice-noodle dishes, and the unusual but tasty Chao Tom, shrimp paste wrapped around barbecued sugarcane (at around $11, it's one of the two most expensive entrees). Fresh spring rolls or crispy fried rolls served with peanut dipping sauce headline the appetizers. Though there are no desserts, there is an unusual variety of beverages from soy milk and exotic fruit juices to "33" Export beer. But possibly the best accompaniment to pho is Ca Phe Sua Da: iced Vietnamese coffee that drips tableside into a cup over a layer of sweetened condensed milk. When it's done dripping, you stir up as much or as little of the milk as you like and pour it over ice.

If you want to avoid a crowd at Vinh Phat, go in the early part of the week. Or try the restaurant's brand-new second location at 10833 W. Broad St. in Innsbrook. The original restaurant is small — seven booths and four tables — and on weekends it can seem like Richmond's entire Vietnamese community is there. But the service remains good even in a crowd. On a recent weekend evening, for example, we arrived to find the place completely full. Even the "office" table, usually covered in newspapers and invoices, had customers.

The only odd thing about Vin Phat is the mix of Asian restaurant atmosphere — high-gloss wall art, pink floral décor, glass tabletops over plastic tablecloths — with American hip-hop music. Oh, and be advised: Eating noodle soup with chopsticks can be a little messy. But, hey, we're feeding the soul

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