Golden 28

(Grand Rapids, MI) Of late, we’ve been lamenting the lack of good Vietnamese cuisine in Grand Rapids (or our complete ignorance of such). We asked around and were told one place had some of the best, authentic dishes in the area: Golden 28. Near-ravenous, we piled into the Prius and drove just 15 minutes away to find out if the recommendation proved true...

He Fed:
Biscuits and bacon jam for breakfast holds my appetite in check for a while, but by the time noon grows closer, I am sinking fast. Luckily, Golden 28 is easy to find and quick to get to from downtown Grand Rapids. The building is a typical free-standing Asian restaurant, with gaily painted walls and fish tank. A hostess shows us to the far corner booth, and thankfully draws the shades closed against the bright mid-day sunshine.

The menu is overwhelming. Golden 28 specializes in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese food. There are many pages but everything is clearly explained. My mouth is watering. It takes more than a few minutes before we see our waitress again; she is busily working other lunchtime tables. Finally, she delivers water and takes our order.

Unwisely, we opt to start with the Appetizer Tray for Two, hoping it will be a panacea to our grumbling stomachs. A platter arrives with fried wonton, fried crab rangoon, fried egg rolls, and fried Vietnamese egg rolls. It is our own fault for not examining the individual appetizers more closely. I wanted those light spring rolls wrapped in rice paper, not a deep fried smorgasbord! Still, each of the items is quite tasty, and when dipped into the bowl of sweet-n-sour plum sauce, even more so. I even enjoy the crab rangoon, from which I typically shy away.

For our main dishes, we each choose a different variety of Pho (there are over 20 different varieties on the menu). Ever since seeing Anthony Bourdain wax poetic about this dish on No Reservations, I’ve been dying to try it. Juliet goes with the Dac Biet and Bo Vien, which is steak, brisket, tendon, tripe and beef ball. The beef ball isn’t what you think; it’s a kind of meat sausage formed by hand into little balls. I decide to try the Beef and Chicken (which I think is Dac Biet and Dac Ga, if I remember correctly). Each comes in a very large bowl, thin slices of meat swimming in a fatty, savory broth, steeped in hand-cut rice noodles. Another plate sits between us with fresh Thai basil (still on the stems), lime wedges, bean sprouts, and tiny whole green chilies.

I quickly dress up my Pho, stirring everything and preparing to take a bite when... Oh no! The waitress mixed our two dishes! No worries; we quickly swap. I bravely wield the chopsticks (not my strong suit), snagging bits of chicken and beef, along with long strands of dripping, spattering noodles. My first couple tastes are underwhelming. It just tastes like soup, really, with some thin, dry cuts of meat.

As I forge ahead, though, it becomes clear the Pho is only just started to come alive. The broth becomes more tantalizing; the fresh chili and Sriracha elevate the heat; the meat is rendered tender, and the thin, bumpy slices of tripe (cut thin to mimic the noodles) lose their disconcerting crunch. Though I had gone haltingly into that bowl of Pho, now my chopsticks click like chef’s blades sharpening. I bring the ladle-spoon utensil to bear now, scooping up great steaming puddles of the broth, drinking it down. Wow. Just wow.

I finish my iced Vietnamese coffee and gaze forlornly at the remainder of the unfinished Pho. My belly is full. I am content. So while the appetizer tray was definitely a mistake, the Pho is worth the wait. Fresh ingredients and authentic preparation more than make up for slightly slow service and typical Asian restaurant decor. I plan to enjoy Pho for lunch more often.
She Fed:
After watching Anthony Bourdain plow through bowls of pho on No Reservations, I have long wanted to try this national dish of Vietnam. Having the recent opportunity to be among a few Vietnamese-Americans (not an easy task in GR) I ask about pho and if there's a local place they can recommend. They enthusiastically agree; Golden 28 is termed "the best in town".

I also learn that the dish is pronounced "fuh" not "foe" or "foo". Many believe the word "pho" is a corruption of the word "feu", which means "fire" in French. Now I hate to admit this, but I didn't pay much attention in history class and my current knowledge of the French occupation of Vietnam is limited to only two things: 1) the Vietnamese sandwich "bahn mi" is a French baguette slathered in pate and garnished with other meats, mint, and basil; 2) the French guys were kind of jerks in the film Indochine, but Catherine Deneuve wore Chanel beautifully.

Turns out most experts agree that pho is the Vietnamese riff on pot-au-feu. Just as with pot-au-feu, marrow-rich bones and cartilage-rich tidbits are simmered to make the broth for pho. Then veggies are added, carrots and potatoes for pot au feu, bean sprouts and basil for pho. In my research I also discover that both pho and pot-au-feu recipes call for charring fresh ginger and onion before adding with the bones to give the finished broth depth of flavor and color.

All this research whets the appetite and I am ravenous when we arrive at Golden 28. The exterior and the interior are typical Midwestern Chinese restaurant decor. When we arrive there are only a few occupied tables, but by the time we depart the restaurant is quite busy.

There are dozens of pho varieties on the menu and it takes me a good five minutes just to read through them all. I decide to go with the "Dac biet bo vien" with rare sliced steak, well-done brisket, tendon, and beef balls, which are simply meatballs. We are both so hungry that we also order the shared appetizer, which ends up being all deep-fried and nothing I'd order again.

The pho arrives and the aroma intoxicates. A platter with bean sprouts, basil leaves, Thai peppers, and lime wedges is placed in the center of the table so we can garnish as desired. I rip up a bunch of basil, toss in a huge handful of sprouts, and squirt in a fair amount of Sriracha sauce. As I stir it all up I notice the scent of the broth, pungent with spices (cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, coriander and fennel) filling the air. I also notice a funny looking noodle in my bowl. Then another. And another. I purposely ordered a pho without tripe, but this bowl is full of it along with chicken slices. Jeremy and I realize they gave us each other's pho, so we swap. But I discover that they mistakenly put tripe in mine as well. I've been wanting to try tripe, so it might as well be today. It's slightly crunchy and flavorless. Not a big deal and I'm not sure why I've been reluctant to try it.

The other surprise in my bowl is several big slippery blobs of chewy fat. I realize this is the tendon, which I mistakenly thought would be meat. Each blob is easy enough to set aside. Overall I really enjoy the pho, the comforting noodles in a spicy but slightly sweet broth, the kick from Sriracha and peppers, the tang of the lime juice all combine to make it an exotic yet almost familiar dish. I can't say if this is the best pho in Grand Rapids, but it was very good and I would order it again, but without the tendon. You can be sure I'll try pho at other places in my travels and see how this one measures up!

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