- CAN'T GO WRONG WITH COMBINATION NOODLE SOUP: It's the standout pho at Mike's.
Your restaurant correspondent is part of a semi-weekly lunch outing with friends. We have a half dozen-spots we regularly visit, but none more often than Mike's Cafe, the nondescript Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant on Asher Avenue. Why? It's cheap and delicious. And when it comes to pho — Vietnamese rice noodle soup — Mike's seems to have curative powers. Hungover? Got a cold? Feeling depressed about the state of the world? It's raining? Mike's pho makes it all better.
We're partial to Pho Dac Biet ($8.95), better known as P1, which the menu describes as "combination rice noodle soup." It's a combo not for the squeamish, an assortment of beef parts: tendon, flank, brisket, meatballs, tripe and rare beef slices. It comes with typical pho garnishes — cilantro, sliced jalapeno peppers, bean sprouts, Thai basil and lime wedges. Throw whatever combination of that you like on top, liberally douse with Sriracha and hoisin sauces and slurp without shame. The only way to get all of Mike's clear, rich broth is to pick the bowl up with two hands and drain it into your mouth.
Our party of four typically sticks to pho, but on a recent visit we decided to explore Mike's voluminous menu. To get a true sense of it would take weeks, as the menu has 16 categories and, at least by our count, 179 items.
Your correspondent got Bun Thit Nu'o'ng ($7.95) or B5, chargrilled pork strips and three or four shrimp atop cold vermicelli noodles. Topped with Thai basil, crushed peanuts, sliced scallions, bean sprouts and pickled carrots and cucumber and served with a sweet dipping sauce, it had the feel of a salad. We would definitely get it again, especially on warm days when we craved something lighter than pho.
Another of us got Bug Gao Ga Xao Ca Ri ($8.95) or B13, chicken rice vermicelli stir-fried with curry, which was a little off the beaten path for our companion. Internet research suggests this dish might also be known as Singapore Noodles on some Chinese menus. Either way, it was delicious if a little heavy on the onions and scallions. The curry flavor was unmistakable but not overpowering, which we appreciated.
Another tried a dish with obvious Chinese cuisine influences, Tom Xao Toi ($10.95) or X36, stir-fried shrimp with garlic. It, unsurprisingly, was heavy on the garlic, with onion, mushrooms and jalapeno and green bell peppers mixed in with the chicken. It came with rice. He thought it was tasty, but said branching out was tough because he spent a lot of time thinking about what else he could have tried and whether trying something new was even worth it because he knows the pho is excellent.
- FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE LIGHTER: Grilled shrimp and pork on noodles.
Our vegetarian friend had been stung before at Mike's when he ordered something a waiter told him was veggie only and it came with big chicken pieces. But this time he came clued to the fact that the Banh Mi ($3), the delightful Vietnamese sandwich, was hidden in the appetizer menu and available with pork or tofu. Since it was a $3 appetizer, he decided to get two. They turned out to be full-sized sandwiches so filling he took one to go. Served on soft French bread, his came with tofu, sliced cucumber, fresh jalapeno, cilantro and some kind of sweet sauce (maybe hoisin). He said it was on a level with many great regional banh mi sandwiches. "This is probably going to be all I eat from now on," he said.
Our crew also tried all the standard appetizers: fried egg rolls ($2.99), spring rolls ($2.95) and fried tofu ($3.95). The latter was described on the menu as fried bean curd. It was fried and served in cubes; it retained the spongy texture of fresh tofu. The egg rolls were fine; nothing to write home about. The spring rolls were also pretty much what you would expect: sticky translucent logs of noodles, lettuce and shrimp or tofu with a peanut sauce. They start out neat and get messy as the structural integrity of the wrap becomes compromised. They, of course, went wonderfully with the peanut sauce.
5501 Asher Ave.
Most of the time Mike's blasts a playlist of music that one of our companions described as the "Grey's Anatomy" satellite radio station. It's lots of anthemic modern rock you could imagine during a montage of doctors breaking hearts and saving lives. There are also disco balls, lights and a large monitor that appears to be for karaoke. So consider Mike's next time you're bar-hopping, is what we're saying.
11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday through Sunday.
Beer and wine only.