February 28-March 6, 2007

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First Bite

Simply Vietnam

By Carey Sweet

Cold, rainy, gray weather calls for soup. Any kind will do, as long as the broth is rich and hot.

Bitter, icy, spiking shards of near-sleet under black skies, though, demand pho, the steaming, savory Vietnamese stuff that's hearty with lots of meat and tangles of slippery vermicelli noodles.

On this afternoon, the rain is pummeling the Sonoma earth so hard, and the late afternoon sky is so murky, that I can hear the drops more than see them on the sluice that is my car's windshield.

So it's pho I'm after, which is why I've risked my life driving flooded roads to meet my mom at Simply Vietnam, a cafe that opened last November in Santa Rosa. It's in the space that used to house Cam Ranh Bay, another Vietnamese restaurant. That Cam place looked pretty ratty, while this new incarnation looks--well, I can't really tell through the hurricane that Mother Nature is unfurling on my vehicle.

A few moments later, I've made it from Toyota to table, and my clothes are dripping on Simply Vietnam's shiny clean floors; if I shook like a dog, I'd splatter on freshly painted mustard-hued walls and chic metal tree sculptures hung like paintings. This place is much prettier than I am right now.

Mom comes slip-sliding in and squishily sits, delighted to find that I've already ordered one of her favorite foods: spring rolls ($4.50). The traditional shrimp model is on the menu, but I've gone for a cold-weather version, the pliable rice-paper wrappers stuffed with nicely charred pork instead of seafood, and served with mildly sweet creamy peanut dip instead of fish sauce. They're filling and nicely bitterish, layered with mint, cilantro and romaine-cucumber chiffonade.

Mom's yellow chicken curry ($6.95) is satisfying, gently seasoned just as she likes it. Her side dish of house-fried rice ($7.95) is top-notch, packing a welcome bit of chile heat lurking amid the usual suspects of chicken, bay shrimp and spicy sausage.

My pho arrives. I've ordered it tai gau style, stocked with thin slices of rare steak and well-done brisket. As the steam rises from my bowl (large, $6.25), I inhale its slow-simmered perfume of onion, beef bone, ginger, carrot, cinnamon and star anise. I decorate my dish with splashes of sriracha, crispy bean sprouts, jalapeño, squirts of lime and tears of fresh mint and cilantro. The first sip from my white plastic soup spoon is heaven, as warmth radiates from my stomach to my chilled, clammy skin.

Then I spear a slice of steak with my chopsticks. It's mainly gristle, and I drop it back in. Three meat pieces later, I'm still spearing cartilage; I taste it and it's chewy boredom. Meager bits of brisket are better, but one of my favorite parts of pho is how the raw steak tenderly cooks in the scalding broth.

The rain has subsided to a drizzle as mom and I leave the restaurant. It's perfect soup weather now. Soup such as, say, the rich, hot broth served at Simply Vietnam.

Simply Vietnam, 966 North Dutton Ave., Santa Rosa. Open Monday-Saturday, 10am to 9pm; Sunday, 11am to 7pm. 707.566.8910.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.