925 Behrman Hwy
Gretna, LA 70056
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Soup is the great restorative meal, and it's often the answer when we want a light, rejuvenating meal or something to help stave off a cold. At the Vietnamese noodle house Pho Danh, the soup options are enormous and so are the portions. You can fill up here with hearty, steaming broth, light rice noodles, lean meat and plenty of fresh vegetables all tied together by a robust range of spicy, salty sauces and garnishes.
Pho Danh is found in the midst of a thriving cluster of Asian-oriented shops anchored by Hong Kong Market, a one-time Wal-Mart that is now a super-sized pan-Asian grocery. The noodle shop is inside the atrium leading to Hong Kong Market, so it's a bit hidden from the street. Very bright, clean and modern, it boasts a sleek design but also feels a bit like a community cafeteria for the shopping center. The place is positively hopping on Saturday mornings during the prime family shopping hour, when 12 or more people may be gathered around the same long table, all slurping their soups together. Check out the little wall-mounted displays showing the revered seasonings for the house soups, and sneak a peak through the open kitchen doors where you'll see whole roasted chickens waiting for the soup and improbably large vats of broth simmering away.
Soups are assembled very quickly in the kitchen and served with little ceremony, so the dining room can feel like a short-order diner. The English descriptions on the menu are slim here, so it always pays to ask questions if you're not certain just what to expect from your order.
The goi cuon -- or spring rolls of rice noodles, pork, shrimp and lettuce wrapped in thin rice paper -- are the only appetizer here, but they could easily furnish a light meal as well. The thin sheet of roasted pork is laced with a ribbon of clear fat, which explains its full flavor, and the sliced shrimp are firm and plump.
Pho Danh's menu lists 29 different soups, although most of them rely on a few cornerstone broths and differ only in the combinations of meats and noodles added. A favorite of mine is the pho tai bo vien, which combines thin sheets of steak and meatballs. At Pho Danh, this soup arrives with the steak still vividly pink and floating on the strongly anise- and ginger-flavored broth with a nest of thin rice noodles coiled beneath the surface. The hot broth finishes the job of cooking the meat in about the same time it takes to augment the soup from a side plate overflowing with fresh bean sprouts, basil, lime and slivers of jalapeno.
For a much different rendition of beef noodle soup try the rich and hearty bun bo binh dinh. The noodles are thick like spaghetti and the broth is spicy all on its own. Beef slices are dark and fatty and the soup also includes a few pads of liver floating over the noodles. Shredded cabbage added at the table contributes considerable crunch. The chicken soup, called pho ga, has a very strong chicken broth flavor and the noodles, onions and fresh, green herbs have plenty of company from both white and dark meat roughly cut up in large, irregular chunks.
Some soups really pile up the ingredients, like the hu tieu mi thap cam (just ask for "No. 25"). This one combines egg noodles and rice noodles for an interesting mix of soft and springy textures and it's loaded with chicken, pork and shrimp in light, clear broth.
Vietnamese restaurants are not widely renowned for their desserts, though there are a few interesting options to end a meal at Pho Danh. For instance, the che dau do, or red bean pudding, is a parfait glass filled with beans in sweet condensed milk with gummy strands of green and white jelly and a cap of crushed ice.
From the familiar iced tea and da chanh, a mixture of club soda and lemon, the many drink options here get into some exotic territory. For instance, a slushy concoction described on the menu as "sour soup mix drink" tasted like a sour, frozen yogurt sweetened by shredded pineapple.
This is a bargain spot for lunch or an early dinner with most items priced above $10. Soups come in three sizes, though what the menu calls a "small soup" is still meal-sized. A soup, an order of spring rolls and a drink will set you back about $15.
Pho Danh is first and foremost a soup specialist, so come here ready to slurp broth and swirl noodles. Though many of the options differ only by a few ingredients, the sheer range of the menu means there are many different soups for different moods or tastes. Inexpensive, filling and loaded with fresh produce, they make an utterly satisfying and rejuvenating meal.