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Souped up

Mike Peters
At Pho Lena in Spenard, the house soup is called pho and can include meat, seafood or a combination of both. Fresh rolls, upper left, round out the fare.

It's a tiny spot, with half a dozen tables in play while the kitchen jams on more orders to go. So it didn't take much word of mouth to keep Pho Lena, Anchorage's newest Southeast Asian eatery, busy at peak hours.

Two glorious petunia baskets struggle mightily to offset the dumpy-looking outer shell of the old China Kitchen in Spenard, and both the flower power and the food seem to pull people in.

The menu is dotted with many standards, with a homestyle preparation that includes a few cultural surprises.

Inevitably, most customers start with the namesake pho, a big and busy soup that belongs to the cuisine of both Vietnam and Laos. Lena Morisath and her kitchen serve several versions, each a mass of hearty noodles in light broth, redolent with green onions and a meat or two.

Topping the menu is No. 10, with slabs of lean, tender brisket that soak up the simple, savory liquid and sparkle across your taste buds. The $8.95 bowl also includes chunks of Thai sausage, which have the taste and mouth-feel of hearts you might find in a chicken soup, or a very firm hot-dog wiener. Get used to the texture, and it's quite tasty.

For most appetites, this is no starter but a meal itself. Like other phos, it comes with fresh salad veggies that are served on the side but don't stay there.

Adding parsley and fragrant Thai basil to the base soup gives it as much pungency as you want; once the herbs are in the sauna, quickly add some bean sprouts and lettuce and dig in as the lettuce blooms with bright green color before it gets soggy.

If you want a soup with more kick, bottles of condiments on each table deliver a range from noisome fish sauce to potent chile paste.

Other phos are made with round eye (steak) and Thai meatballs (also $8.95) or homemade udon noodles in chicken broth ($6.95), which, Lena tells us, gets a rich boost from adding some pork blood jelly.

I remind myself that if I don't want culinary adventure, I can stay home and have PB&J.

Other soups are Thai standards, including a savory tom kha gai with its requisite coconut-milk base made tangy with galanga plus chicken, cilantro and lime juice ($7.95 for a bowl), served with steamed rice. Tom yin gong ($8.95), another classic of the region, is packed with shrimp, squid, lemongrass, cilantro and mint.

The star of the appetizer menu is the spring rolls ($6.95 for four), each artfully packaged so that both ends are closed, though a deep green scallion extends from the package like an exuberant tail for the cooked shrimp that shows through the translucent wrapper. A basic, sweet dipping sauce comes with the platter. You can also order satay ($7.95), savory strips of chicken on skewers served with peanut sauce, as a starter.

The entree list offers more convention and more exotica. Pad woon sen ($7.95) is a hearty salad of glass noodles, lime juice and cilantro garnish with your choice of chicken, bean or pork. We found it a little blander than renditions elsewhere, though more lime and the condiment bottles were arrayed to pep it up to individual tastes.

Neua yang is another dish that walks a cultural tightrope. The menu doesn't call it "Tiger Cries," but this is Lena's rendition of a Thai sliced beef dish that varies a lot in local preparation.

Don't expect the meat lean, rare and super-garlicked: It comes cooked through and extremely fatty, nested on a bed of lettuce with a side sauce that packed peppery fireworks and a salty edge ($7.95).

We ate it as it was served and were immediately reminded why we love bacon. But we bantered a bit about the fat: Should we cut it off after it served its succulent purpose, or say damn the artery clogging and eat the whole disgustingly delicious works? (After all, Dr. Michael DeBakey just died after a lifetime trying to prevent the heart attack I expected to induce in a matter of minutes.)

Morisath, working the tables like a butterfly in a bright red silk blouse, appears at this point and joins the fat debate.

"I know," she says, "but it's very good, my favorite. And this is the traditional way to serve it. I have Korean ladies who order this all the time. They call in orders to go and say, 'Lena, please make sure it has plenty of fat.' "

At that point, my companion neatly trims hers off. Myself -- eager to be culturally authentic, eat everything -- I am just proud afterward that I didn't rub the stuff all over me.

Another dish made a great foil for the "Tiger Cries": ban cuon. These Vietnamese-style steamed rice cakes were bright white and gelatinous, rolled about crispy bits of pork and black mushroom ($6.95). Simple, not sassy.

The six-page menu embraces not only the foods of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand but China as well.

Service is pleasant and eager but a bit stretched. Even in this small dining room, you sometimes have to wait for tables to be cleaned, and the flow of silverware and chopsticks is uneven. But it's well worth joining the bustle, despite some of the service bumps common to new restaurants.

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Pho Lena

Location: 2904 Spenard Road

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 2 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Phone: 277-9777

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By Mike Peters
Daily News correspondent