Though it originated in the humid subtropical climate of northern Vietnam, pho is my nominee for Alaska's state dish. It's the perfect cold-weather food -- hot and savory, with a stick-to-your-ribs staying power that doesn't leave you feeling overstuffed. Better yet, it's easily customizable. Want more heat? Add jalapenos and a squirt of Sriracha. Bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, onions and a lime wedge are typically served alongside the soup, so diners can garnish the flavorful broth to their heart's content.
Phonatik Vietnamese Cuisine and Lounge bills itself as an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, featuring scratch-made soups using all-natural ingredients. Open since summer, it occupies the space on Dimond Boulevard that used to house Marty's New York Bagel Deli.
My husband and I stopped by Phonatik for lunch on a recent Monday. With the thermostat well below freezing, some hot soup was a tempting prospect. The space had received a well-executed update: A black-and-white color scheme, understated wall art and stylish track lighting. It was certainly a step above typical Anchorage pho joints that often offer little in the way of ambiance.
We perused the menu, which was limited to a single page and written in an unusual, difficult-to-read font. The appetizer menu consisted of egg rolls, fried calamari, crab and cream cheese-stuffed wontons, and several varieties of spring rolls. All appetizers were $8. Pho options included beef and chicken soup ($9 medium, $12 large), as well as an intriguing "pho your way" option. Diners can choose any three items -- rare steak, flank steak, brisket, tendon, tripe or meatball -- for the same price as regular pho. Oxtail can be had for $2 more. The menu also features rice dishes ($10-$14), Vietnamese sandwiches ("banh mi," $7) and an extensive drink selection ($2-$5).
We decided on the grilled pork spring rolls, as well as a medium chicken pho ("pho ga") and a medium steak pho ("pho tai"). My husband also ordered an iced coffee ($4).
Our spring rolls were delivered in short order by one of the friendly wait staff. To say I was favorably impressed with the rolls would be an understatement: They were, hands down, the best I'd ever eaten. Rather than sitting around in a cooler, it was evident they had been made fresh to order. Juicy pork with just the right amount of char and sweetness, crispy romaine and tender rice noodles were held together with a melt-in-your-mouth rice paper wrapper. The peanut dipping sauce was delicious, made even more so when our waiter instructed us to add a bit of chili sauce for extra kick.
The soup received high marks as well. I usually order beef pho, so the chicken was a departure for me. It did not disappoint, however. The piping-hot broth held succulent white meat chicken, thinly sliced onion and scallions. It had a lighter, brighter taste than traditional beef pho and required little doctoring -- I was content to let the taste of the broth take center stage.
My husband was pleased with his beef pho. The broth was slightly more unctuous than my chicken pho, so he added a squirt of chili sauce and a squeeze of lime for heat and acidity. The cool sweetness of the iced coffee provided the perfect accompaniment.
Not to be overlooked was the service. I hadn't even noticed it, but our table legs were uneven and caused the table to rock slightly. One of the wait staff detected the problem and remedied it immediately.
I stopped in for a to-go lunch a few days later. I placed an order for the fillet mignon rice plate ($14) but was told the restaurant was out of that particular dish, so opted instead for the beef stew ("pho bokho," $9 for medium).
The broth-based dish was more of a soup than a stew. Like the other pho dishes, it came with the requisite rice noodles and garnishes. Chunks of stew meat and cooked carrot swam in an incredibly rich, savory broth. It was hearty and filling, and I enjoyed the stew just as much without the rice noodles. It's definitely a dish I would order again, particularly on a bone-chilling winter day.
Despite its kitschy name, Phonatik provides an upscale atmosphere and attentive service. Well-executed dishes, reasonable prices and late-night weekend hours should make this restaurant a south-side staple.
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By Carly Horton Stuart
Daily News correspondent