Herald Rating: * * * *
Address: 215 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden
Phone: (09) 630 3288
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Open: Tues-Fri 11am-3pm, 5.30pm-10pm, Weekends 11am-10pm
From the menu: Grilled beef/pork on prawn crackers, thin sliced rice $9;
Shredded chicken and mushroom on yee mee noodles $11;
Red bean, mung bean, agar and coconut milk $4.50
Vegetarian: Tofu and bean sprout nirvana
Wine: BYO only

Key Points:

If you read the signs, you may think there are three restaurants in the Dominion Rd shop between Wendy's and Pizza Hut. If you read the menus in the window, you will get the idea there are two. Go inside, it's one dining room.

What you eat depends on your mood. Pho, the full-meal division, takes its name from Vietnam's classic beef noodle soup, a rich, clear broth produced from hours upon hours of boiling meat and herbs.

Banh Mi Bale is the Vietnamese word for "Subway". Quite a lot has been gained in the translation. With a bit of input from an earlier colonial power. Banh mi is a baguette filled with curried chicken, beef stew, steamed pork meatloaf, grilled chicken marinated in lemongrass.

We are going for the whole belly pork, and a few other treats. It helps to have a handle on Vietnamese cuisine, which is like Thai but different. Based on fish, soy and hoisin sauces, it uses vegetables, herbs and spices (lemon grass, lime, and kaffir lime leaves), many of which are found in any self-respecting Kiwi supermarket these days.

The Pho folk's menu tallies 123 options, though many are variations - you can have grilled pork in lemongrass on its own, with rice, or vermicelli, or fried rice noodles or fried egg noodles or ... you get the picture.

"BYO" say those signs, but there are drinks here with a kick as big as alcohol. They call 'em "shakes". We know them better as smoothies, a few teaspoons of sugar, crushed ice and fresh fruit. Manly, pineapply-scented jackfruit for me, lychee for the women. Gorgeous. "I'd come here just for this," slurped Jude.

We didn't fuss with individual selections to start. The platter of spring rolls, charcoal pork balls, prawn wontons and chicken skewers would set us up for whatever might follow. Quick, no-fuss cooking of the freshest ingredients, flashed with spices.

It's manners in Vietnam to take your own bowl of rice and share the dishes. We knew by the size of the passing trays - fragrant, steamy, shiny, piled with meat, vegetables (some traditional, others local approximations) - that we wouldn't need to choose one each. But we did.

Pork is a Vietnamese favourite. I'd taken our waitress' advice for braised cubes "in Spicy Chef's Special Sauce". I can't vouch for the chef's personal life, but his sauce had the punch of a good ol' Southern boy's secret down-home BBQ recipe. The meat was so tender that at first bite we thought they'd brought us chicken.

Buried in the platter were hash browns. Little round ones. I didn't know these were a Vietnamese speciality.

Sian's suggestion won the night - strips of chicken marinated in lemongrass that went looking for the tastebuds and when it found them, fair rammed 'em up against the palate.

Third place went to the beef and black bean sauce, which was true to label but didn't have the zing of the other dishes. Or, more likely, by this time we were full and happy, and our wallets barely thinner.

We will go back. Apart from those shakes, there are bowls of fragrant pho and vermicelli or wonton soup to try.