Pho Gia’s #31: The Steak & Brisket Pho ($6.50).

I’ve driven by Pho Gia, located at 1944 NE Sandy, countless times in the last three years and never once considered stopping—it looked like a converted bank or the kind of Americanized eatery that would serve the pho version of a Big Mac.

But one day my husband (a man who would opt for pho over me if he was stuck on a desert island and could only bring one thing with him) told me their steamy Vietnamese soup was the best he’d had in town. The reason? The holy grail of real pho: an authentic broth.

So, off we went one recent rainy evening and—no joke—we have eaten there at least twice a week ever since. In fact, the austere but efficient waitress who is always working (I think three or four women run the whole show, front and back) has started making fun of us.

We always get the same thing:

1) Tofu salad rolls ($3.95). These are not the best salad rolls in Portland (that award goes to Khun Pic’s Bahn Thai on Belmont, despite the hour-long wait), but at least they contain giant hunks of fried tofu, and we’re not there for the appetizers anyway.

2) The #31: Steak & Brisket Pho ($6.50). They offer numerous variations, but this is the bowl that had my husband at hello. While many local pho finds ladle up a slapdash sweet-and-sour, this broth is deeper, richer, and more complex—a sign that they actually took the extensive time to simmer marrow-rich beef bones and add the proper spices like star anise, cloves, and ginger. It isn’t too sweet, nor is it too fatty. Of course, you also get the requisite rice noodles, slivers of white onion, and sprinkle of scallions, plus a plentiful plate of texture-and-flavor-enhancing bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, and lime. The tender steak and lean brisket is properly prepared (it continues to cook in your piping hot soup), and what it may lack in quantity, it makes up in quality.

3) The vegetarian pho ($6.50). Again, it’s the “five-spice broth” that makes this flesh-free version shine. It’s a touch sweeter and a little lighter than the carnivore options; but, nevertheless, the flavor is full and nuanced, as if they actually put care into it rather than just plopping a salt-sugar-water combo on the menu to appease picky Portlanders. The bowl is also stuffed with crisp red and green peppers, broccoli, carrots, and cabbage, and slices of meaty king mushrooms. And, again, there could be more of the tofu chunks, but at least they are fried and retain their firm texture. (Side note: All local pho joints should start exploring meat substitutes other than tofu—wonders can be done with wheat gluten, folks.)

As for atmosphere, Pho Gia provides a simple, clean, and somewhat comical mish-mash of real plants, old pizza parlor light fixtures, and Christian paraphernalia, as well as synthesizer versions of Fernando and Unchained Melody that harmonize with the happy slurping of damn good soup.

From kitschy dining rooms nearby to the outlying hole-in-the-wall, who’s pho do you think is for real?