Revisit: Pho 54

Sizzling Wok Thien Huong gets a new look and a shorter name.

A Michigan Road favorite for home-cooked Vietnamese staples recently got a bit of a makeover—and a new name. After a short hiatus, Pho 54 (7280 N. Michigan Rd., 298-9001) opened in early August in the same former fast-food storefront that housed Sizzling Wok Thien Huong, for years one of the few places in town to get aromatic lemongrass chicken or the hearty rice-noodle soup pho. While the owners are the same, the dining room will seem somewhat more spacious and tidy—at least to those who haven’t stopped in for a few years.

A slightly edited menu makes finding the best dishes easier. Familiar Chinese takeout fare such as moo goo gai pan and beef and broccoli is serviceable, but it’s the namesake Vietnamese soup that’s the real treasure here now, presented hot and bubbling in an elaborate covered aluminum bowl. The rare-beef pho comes with plenty of thin slices of beef as well as tomatoes, rice noodles, and slices of a bitter Vietnamese squash in a well-seasoned broth with hints of cinnamon and allspice, garnished with cilantro. A large is easily enough to serve a table of six.

Among a selection of gourmet and vegetarian specialties, a delicate whole steamed catfish comes topped with ground pork, bean-thread noodles, and black mushrooms in a sauce redolent of ginger. A not-too-spicy red curry includes chunks of tender chicken, potatoes, and onions in a rich broth of lemongrass-infused coconut milk. While it’s actually served in a wooden-handled saucepan, clay pot pork offers one of the more complex spice blends of any dish on the menu, with a tempered heat that won’t scare off the more timid diners at the table.

For the novice to Vietnamese food, a straightforward but tasty plate of lemongrass chicken showcases the signature flavors of this Southeast Asian nation’s diverse cuisine—served simply with steamed rice. With a short list of banh mi sandwiches on the back of the menu—including a shredded tofu banh mi for vegetarians—the offerings at Pho 54 are definitely worth checking out, especially now that their surroundings have received a welcome upgrade.