Typically when a dish is cooked before your eyes, the cook is also there to make it. Not so at Pho Tam. The server deposits a giant, boiling-hot bowl of Pho Dac Biet (beef noodle soup with meatballs) on the table, and pushing aside a pile of green onions and cilantro, I spot a small mound of raw sliced beef atop a small hill of rice noodles. The beef poaches as I stir it into the broth. Pink, raw meat is startling for the uninitiated, but it cooks up fast and is tender once dropped in the boiling broth.
A plate of bean sprouts, basil, sliced jalapenos and a lime wedge that arrive with the soup are stirred liberally into the broth, lending a crunchy freshness to soup. "Fresh" is not an adjective one often uses when describing soups, but Pho Tam's version manages to be both fresh and light and still be a comfort food.
Some pho restaurants dispense with seasonings in their broth, requiring diners to play chef with the bottles of hot, sweet and soy sauce left on the table. Pho Tam's broth is great straight up. It's lightly seasoned and not too beefy, with the faintest hint of sweetness. A couple of squeezes of hoisin, soy and hot sauce turn a good broth into a fantastic cacophony of flavors.
Sliced meatballs and tripe make Pho Tam's Pho Dac Biet seem traditionally Vietnamese and not dumbed down for local palates. But the chewy, fuzzy strands of tripe aren't for the faint of heart.
"Every time, I tell them if they are American that No. 1 has tripe," said waitress Yesica Lopez. "Do you like tripe? Or do you want to do No. 1A that doesn't? I let them know."
With an eye on a crime drama playing out on one of the restaurant's two big flat-screen televisions, I scoped out the joint, and got the feeling that the place is old, even though it has been open only seven months. The fluorescent lighting makes Pho Tam look timeworn, as do the wall-mounted plastic flowers. But Pho Tam doesn't need to feel like grandma's house to prove its worth as a source for fresh comfort food.