Feet First: Midland Wok brings the essence of pork to Overland

At the Vietnamese restaurant Midland Wok, the #26 soup — banh canh gio heo — is described in English as "big clear noodles and pork." This leaves out some crucial information, as I discovered when I ordered a bowl for lunch. A couple of minutes after the owner took my order, he returned with the menu to make sure that I wanted the #26.

"Right," I said. "Noodles and pork."

The owner frowned. "You eat pigs' feet?"

Yes, I do. The soup arrived shortly thereafter: The knobby feet bobbed in a clear broth with thick white noodles like grossly swollen spaghetti. Chopped green onion and tiny flakes of meat were scattered across the surface. Unlike pho, Vietnam's traditional beef-noodle soup, the #26 didn't come with a plate of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, jalapeño and lime wedges to add to the broth. It didn't matter. The soup might have been unlovely to look at, but the aroma wafting up from the bowl was beguiling.

What would the essence of pork taste like? I don't mean what should the essence of pork taste like: We can discuss sustainably raised meat and heritage breeds — and whether most of us have ever tasted "real" pork — some other time. I mean, if you could concentrate what most of us consider the flavor of pork into a single dish, what would it be?

I submit Midland Wok's #26 soup. Though the broth is nearly as clear as a consommé, it has an incomparably rich pork flavor, so richly porky that I didn't mind how little meat the pigs' feet yielded. The noodles were firmer than I expected, chewy in a glutinous sort of way; they soaked up the broth without losing much of their texture.

Midland Wok is hidden in a tiny storefront, sandwiched between a Mexican grocery store and a doughnut shop in an Overland strip mall. The entrance to its parking lot off of Midland Boulevard is barely noticeable between two gas stations. A sign at the strip mall's entryway says Midland Wok serves Thai cuisine, which it did for a few years. Now, the restaurant's original owners are back in charge. The menu includes Chinese, and even Filipino, dishes, as well as Vietnamese fare, though the last one is its main focus.

This is a no-frills place: The interior seats maybe two dozen in the single dining room. The walls are a shade of green like one of those old Crayola fluorescent markers. The takeout menu is the menu: A folded copy is tucked in between the sriracha and soy sauces on your table. There's a good chance the owner will take your order, and the chef will clear your table.

An electronic sign in the front window advertises Midland Wok's soups. A handwritten sign in the corner of the window advertises its soups in Spanish, a fascinating nod to the neighborhood's demographics.

So maybe you should have soup. The menu offers 24 different soups, including nine variations of pho. To make my biases clear, I feel about pho the way many feel about pizza: Even bad pho is still pretty good. And great pho is one of the best foods in the world. It clears your sinuses, heals your soul and makes a filling meal without being heavy.

In fact, it was rumors of pho that first drew me to this humble spot. Though I was unable to confirm this before press time, a reader contacted me through Twitter (www.twitter.com/gutcheckstl) to let me know the cook from the pho-centric University City joint Pho Long ("Pho Real," November 30, 2006) was now serving pho here.

I opted for the pho tai bo vien (#11), which comes with thinly sliced steak and Vietnamese meatballs. (The latter, dense and funky, are an acquired taste.) On a later visit, I tried pho duoi bo (#15), with oxtails. Both were excellent: The broth walks a narrow line, its distinctive anise flavor strong enough not to be overpowered by the beef or the jalapeños, yet not so strong that the subtleties of the fresh herbs were lost.

The oxtail was especially nice, the meat very tender with the cut's naturally rich flavor. This is the rare pho for which you will need a fork — to remove meat from the oxtail bones. Unless, of course, you're freakishly adept at using chopsticks and not afraid to splash a little broth on yourself.

Midland Wok also offers a few banh mi, the French-influenced Vietnamese sandwiches that have become trendy in New York and elsewhere in the past few years. I have no idea why they're hot at this particular moment, but they're tasty: a meat tucked inside a crusty demibaguette and topped with loads of fresh cilantro, pickled daikon radish, jalapeño and more.

I was disappointed to learn that the #25 banh mi dac biet, with the essential ingredient of headcheese, wasn't available. (Traditional banh mi usually include headcheese or pâté or both.) A version with grilled pork, banh mi thit nuong (#23), was heavy on the mayo and lacked jalapeños, but it was still tasty — especially once I'd squirted some sriracha sauce over it.

Sriracha sauce — or, yes, cock sauce, after the rooster on its label — is another Southeast Asian staple that has been becoming more mainstream here in the United States. This is amusing, because I'm pretty sure I've eaten at Vietnamese restaurants where the bottle on my table was as old as I am, but a positive step for American cuisine. Sriracha kicks ketchup's puny butt to the curb, its bracing chile-pepper heat accenting the flavor of anything from pho to French fries.

At Midland Wok I used sriracha as a dipping sauce for succulent shrimp fried in a light, crisp tempura batter. The shrimp came with their own dipping sauce, a hot, sweet concoction that wasn't bad, but it didn't add the extra kick that sriracha does.

Sriracha saved an order of pansit, Filipino-style pan-fried noodles. This dish was new to me: thin noodles, most translucent, with chicken (or, if you want, shrimp or tofu) and a few chopped vegetables. The seasoning was utterly drab, like a generic stir-fry sauce, but a few squirts of sriracha and it wasn't a total loss.

Midland Wok offers an entire menu of Chinese dishes. I didn't try these, but the selection has inexpensive Chinese American standards and even includes that St. Louis specialty, the St. Paul sandwich. But given the choice between a St. Paul sandwich and pigs' feet, I'm taking the trotters every time.