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Phơ 4 U in Atascadero serves up Vietnam's signature rice noodle soup and sweet pearl tea drinks 

As operating manager Trung Tran puts it: Americans have their hamburgers, and the Vietnamese have their phơ.

Phơ—pronounced fuh—the world-famous, flavorful signature dish of Vietnam, is what the late chef and sassy New Yorker Anthony Bourdain called his irresistible siren song, the dish he craved above all others. Rice noodles. Beef broth. Meat and herbs. A humble, traditional soup that's been satiating citizens for centuries. Bourdain did several episodes of No Reservations on Vietnam. "It's one of my favorite places on Earth," he said, talking about its food and its people.

click to enlarge SOMETIMES YOU GET WHATCHA NEED Among nine different kinds of Vietnamese phơ on the menu, pictured is the combination phơ: steak, brisket, and beef balls garnished with bean sprouts and Thai basil, and the steak phơ. From the "Munchies" section of the menu: crispy and delicious shrimp and pork fried dumplings. - PHOTOS BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photos By Beth Giuffre
  • SOMETIMES YOU GET WHATCHA NEED Among nine different kinds of Vietnamese phơ on the menu, pictured is the combination phơ: steak, brisket, and beef balls garnished with bean sprouts and Thai basil, and the steak phơ. From the "Munchies" section of the menu: crispy and delicious shrimp and pork fried dumplings.

I'm a big fan of those No Reservations episodes on the Travel Channel simply because of the contrast between the places portrayed and where we live here in California. From my Atascadero sofa, I've watched Bourdain as he took us to rice farms where women work ankles deep in the wet rows, and as he whisked us to busy Hanoi—white-knuckling it though lanes whizzing with motorbikes in search of the best phơ.

Here at the Central Coast's own Phơ 4 U, which has been open just nine months, the walls are decorated with photographs of Vietnam. My favorite is a photograph of a Vietnamese bicycle rider in an Asian rice hat, keeping her own pace through the crazy modernized streets of the capital.

The local restaurant is small, clean, and refreshing to walk in to, with maybe about 10 tables and a patio spot on arguably the most darling street in Atascadero. A big screen on a mint green wall plays music videos: some American, some Asian. Above, tropical fans keep the room cool, and a white curtain separates the dining room from the kitchen.

Outside is a pink lotus flower pond, hanging paper lanterns, and a corner view of the Carlton Hotel. I haven't seen a child walk in Phơ 4 U without running a finger through that pretty lotus pond. Kids love phơ. You see them, their heads down in their big bowls, slurping up their noodles with the rest of the clientele, taking occasional breaths to catch what outlandish thing is happening on the music video screen.

My husband, Greg, has replaced his after-surf-burrito ritual with a bowl of phơ, and I have moments when I feel so accomplished I want to reward myself with a boba drink. Phơ 4 U specializes in both.

Phơ is the main feature on the menu. There are nine different but traditional Vietnamese versions (even vegan!) all for $8.99. Munchies (appetizers), including egg rolls and fried dumplings, are all just $5.49. The other side of the menu spotlights boba drinks and milk teas, which you can have made with almond milk.

click to enlarge THE MOST DARLING STREET Phơ 4 U is located at arguably the most charming street in Atascadero, Entrada Avenue, kitty-corner from the classic Carlton Hotel, and is neighbors with Anna & Mom and Dark Nectar Coffee Roaster. - PHOTOS BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photos By Beth Giuffre
  • THE MOST DARLING STREET Phơ 4 U is located at arguably the most charming street in Atascadero, Entrada Avenue, kitty-corner from the classic Carlton Hotel, and is neighbors with Anna & Mom and Dark Nectar Coffee Roaster.

The service is friendly and efficient. They bring you ice-cold filtered water in stainless steel cups without your having to ask, and the food comes out fast.

Greg had surfed four hours before the Sunday evening we last visited Phơ 4 U, so his hunger was as strong as animal-infused rice whiskey. He ordered the combination phơ. It was an enormous bowl of deep, clear, mysteriously satisfying bone broth, with hints of star anise, generous portions of thinly sliced steak, tender brisket, and meatballs (beef balls). The onions and scallions floated on the top of a nest of soft, iridescent rice noodles.

The phơ is served with a garnish of bean sprouts, Thai basil, and lime wedge (which you can add to your taste). On the table is a caddy of Sriracha and hoisin sauce; Greg added large squirts of both to his phơ. Mine was perfect as is, but I took most of the basil.

I ordered the steak phơ because I love how the raw beef arrives in a ball, and then when gently pushed below the surface of the broth with chopsticks, it cooks just how I like it, right then and there.

click to enlarge PHO' 4 SLO Phơ 4 U's operating manager, Trung Tran, said the owners, with roots in South Vietnam, came from San Jose to open Phơ 4 U in October 2018. - PHOTOS BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photos By Beth Giuffre
  • PHO' 4 SLO Phơ 4 U's operating manager, Trung Tran, said the owners, with roots in South Vietnam, came from San Jose to open Phơ 4 U in October 2018.

At the other tables surrounding us, phơ lovers were all making slurping sounds, and that's OK, because the Vietnamese, as in other Asian cultures, dig it when you make loud sounds with your soup. It means you're enjoying your meal.

Phơ has never been so popular with American-Vietnamese families and adventurous American eaters alike, which is why Trung said the owners wanted to bring the iconic soup to the North County.

Phơ has been around forever in Vietnam and is a street-food staple. The dish originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam, varying by noodle width and broth flavor. Researchers say it was the French settlers who introduced the Vietnamese to beef in their phơ. Apparently the traditional way to prepare phơ before then was with pork or chicken because cows were mainly used for labor.

The phơ at Phơ 4 U is as authentic as you can get. Trung said the steak phơ is the most traditional bowl on the menu, but their top sellers are the steak and brisket phơ and the combination phơ.

click to enlarge THIRSTY? Phơ 4 U makes organic tiger pearl milk tea, a chilled caramel cream jasmine tea drink with passion fruit tapioca pearls that's so good it's unreal. - PHOTOS BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photos By Beth Giuffre
  • THIRSTY? Phơ 4 U makes organic tiger pearl milk tea, a chilled caramel cream jasmine tea drink with passion fruit tapioca pearls that's so good it's unreal.

We also tried the crispy shrimp and pork-filled fried dumplings. The plate of seven dumplings was served with a red sweet chili sauce that's double-dip worthy. Just divine.

Since the Vietnamese believe in "comprehensive eating," all dishes come at once so you can appreciate the colors and aromas together. This means that you get your munchies with your phơ. If you want it ahead of time, just ask, or better yet, just go with the flow.

I love how Phơ 4 U capitalized on two of my favorite crazes: In addition to Bourdain's siren song, half of the menu is devoted to the most delicious drinks around. For a mere $4.25, you can order the organic tiger pearl milk tea. This Taiwanese bubble tea drink is a rich, creamy caramel jasmine tea made with sweet, soft, and chewy passion fruit tapioca pearls.

They also make an organic matcha strawberry frappe, organic jasmine milk tea, classic Thai iced tea, and Vietnamese iced coffee. Yes, you can order a boring soft drink, but why? I once looked into making boba pearl drinks, and let me tell you, it's too hard. I don't even know where to start.

So, unless you're an accomplished chef, I say just head to Phơ 4 U. Δ

Flavor writer Beth Giuffre says it'd be good 4 everyone if U support this Vietnamese gem. Send boba and rice noodles through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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