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Review: Drab service mars a good meal at Pho Mailan

It wasn’t the best way to start a meal. “What do you recommend?” I asked my waiter — a fairly standard question when checking out a new restaurant. His answer, however, was anything but standard.

“Since it’s really busy tonight, I’d say to go with a soup,” he replied.

Really? Was this guy actually asking us to base our meal on what was most convenient for the kitchen? Worse yet, the place was only half-full!

I didn’t say any of that aloud. But the incredulous look in my eyes obviously gave me away. “And it’s cold outside, right?” he offered.

Actually, it wasn’t cold that night. And I was going to have the “soup” anyway. (Who goes to a Vietnamese restaurant without trying the pho?) But his comment set the tone for my entire visit to Pho Mailan, a new spot on Eastern Avenue, in Henderson. Throughout my meal, the staff appeared overwhelmed by what seemed like a manageable crowd. Perhaps they were understaffed that night, or training some new people. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame. Because, despite the spotty service, the restaurant actually offers pretty good food in a neighborhood where you don’t expect to find a Vietnamese restaurant.

Located in a large strip mall just north of Anthem, Pho Mailan is a cute little spot. The large, bright dining room is nicely decorated — much nicer than most of the Vietnamese places I’ve tried in Chinatown. There’s a display case with a rotating selection of wines that aren’t listed on the menu. The clientele on the night my wife and I visited consisted primarily of families with small children, the majority of them Asian.

The menu is large. The 16 appetizers include numerous spring and summer rolls ($5-$6), skewers ($7), chicken wings ($7) and grilled shrimp cakes ($10). There are 10 bun (rice vermicelli bowls, $7-$11), 14 com (rice dishes, $8-$12), 14 pho (beef noodle soup $7- $8), two pho ga (chicken noodle soup, $7-$8), a handful of house specialties ($7-$10), and five banh mi (sandwiches, $5).

If you’re not familiar with Vietnamese food, however, the English descriptions on menu can be a little misleading. Take the spring rolls. Forget what you get at your local Chinese joint. The Vietnamese version features a large bunch of cold lettuce and sprouts (and sometimes vegetables) with just a touch of meat, wrapped in a strip of translucent rice paper. Similarly, if you see the words “rice” and “vermicelli” in the description of bun and expect something similar to Rice-A-Roni, you will be disappointed. These bowls are a cold collection of rice noodles, sprouts and other veggies, topped with proteins that range from catfish and shrimp cake to grilled chicken. None of this should scare away the uninitiated from either Vietnamese food or Pho Mailan. Both of those dishes are wonderful, and the versions I sampled here were done very well. The hearty slices of roasted pork on my nem nuon cuon spring rolls were delicious, as were the grilled shrimp and pork sausage in my bun tom nuong and nem nuong.

I was even more impressed with my banh mi ga nuong (grilled chicken sandwich). All good sandwiches begin with great bread, and all good banh mi begin with a great baguette, a holdover from Vietnam’s years as a French colony. With a few exceptions, I’ve never considered Las Vegas a great town for bakeries. But Pho Mailan has clearly found one of those exceptions. The bread here is exceptional, and the sandwich fillings are nearly as good.

Of course, you can’t visit a place with the word pho in its name without trying that dish. My wife and I shared a small order of pho tai, bo vien — the noodle broth with sliced round-eye steak and beef meatballs, accompanied by the traditional jalapeno, basil, lime wedge and bean sprout seasonings. While the meatballs had a bit of gristle, the steak was very good and the soup was deliciously rich and packed with flavor.

Pho Mailan is a welcome addition to a neighborhood that already boasts a nice selection of restaurants. Once it figures out how to handle a mid-sized crowd without panicking, it’ll be even better.

PHO MAILAN 365-8989, 10895 S. Eastern Ave. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net, and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.