Monday, December 8, 2008

Pho the record -- the good, the bad and the ugly

My favorite thing to eat on a cold day is a piping hot bowl of pho, and the only place to eat pho is in lil Saigon -- mainly Westminster, but the main drag, Brookhurst, sits in between the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove. You'll find a restaurant on one side of the street with their address in one city and one across the way in another.

I've had my share of nasty pho, mediocre pho, as well as decent pho, but what I really want is a perfect bowl of pho. To me, the perfect bowl comprises of al dente noodles, broth that is so hot your mouth will burn if you tried to sip it too quickly, and fresh condiments to accompany it with. Another important aspect is the broth, which ideally should have a hearty beefy taste without being murky or greasy. I never knew it was such a difficult task to find this perfection until I went searching for it.

One of my favorite places for pho is Pho 79 (9941 Hazard Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92643. Ph: 714-531-2490). Now, don't be fooled by the other places boasting the 79 name. They are all imposters! Only the location on Hazard has the good pho. The version here is a rich, deep, broth filled with the strong aromas of star anise. My experience has been better later on in the day rather than when they first open at 8am. The broth is a lot stronger around lunch time. The only thing I dislike is the copious use of MSG at Pho 79. Be sure you have some time to wait because this place is always packed. I've had to wait for a table most often than not even during off-peak hours.

If you wish to avoid the MSG factor, try Pho 86 (10528 McFadden Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843. Ph: 714-531-0512). You'll get a scorchingly hot bowl of pho with fresh basil, ngo gai leaves (or sawtooth herb), beansprouts and jalapenos. The broth is flavorful without being oily and has a rich finish -- not as intense as Pho 79's, but very very satisfying! For about $5 you will leave highly contented without to deal with MSG coma later!

Pho Quang Trung (10072 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843. Ph: 714-638-2286) is one of those places even hardcore grandmas agree has pretty decent pho when they don't feel like making it themselves. They get quite busy around lunch time so try to get there early or late.

If you're on a tight budget, you might wish to consider Hoa Binh (14472, Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92842 Ph: 714-531-3088) and Pho Vinh Ky 2 (14390 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92842 Ph: 714-531-4965). Both are decent enough for what you pay. Hoa Binh has two daily specials each day at 50% off the regular price, while Vinh Ky has pho bo or beef pho at around $3.99 a bowl.

Pho Lu (10141 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843 Ph: 714-539-7979) and the sister location of Pho 86 off McFadden Ave (14576 Brookhurst Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-839-4591) also have decent pho -- not too much MSG and a tasty, flavorful broth. The latter serves a perfect portion for me, not too large and they are very generous with the meat just like the McFadden location except their broth isn't serve as scorchingly hot.

I've discovered that just because a place has "pho" in its name, doesn't necessarily mean it has good pho. Sometimes, it's pretty goddamn awful. Generally, I trust my Vietnamese friends for recommendations, but mostly, it's simply by trial and error. Sometimes, I just stop at a place I've never been to and take my chances. When it's truly awful, I just don't eat it. There's nothing worse than having to eat something disgusting when there is so much good food out there. I know my mom would've slapped me silly 20 years ago had I left a bowl of anything because it didn't taste good. These days, she knows better. My motto is, "why waste your stomach space for something unpalatable? You only get 3 meals a day, make them great!"

My motto came into full effect when I was faced with inedible fare at Pho Thanh Lich (14500 Brookhurst St, Westminster, CA 92684 Ph: 714-531-5789). The broth was coated with a layer of grease and had the murkiness of a river bed when disturbed. The worst part was it tasted like offal. I passed!

Another less than desirable establishment is Pho Thang Long (
9550 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-839-4955), which has extremely high volume in the wee hours of the night because it's one of the few places in lil Saigon open until 3am. I'm told their pho is a hit and miss, but unfortunately for me, it was definitely a miss. Overcooked noodles were squashed into a bowl too small for the volume. Measly portions of meat shared space with overbearing noodles trying hard to garner attention, but without much luck. The ratio was a lose lose situation for the meat and flavorless broth. Very soon, the noodles soaked up all the liquid leaving them in a pile of white clumpy mess.

But pho isn't only restricted to beef pho or pho bo. Chicken pho or pho ga is also very tasty. My favorite can be found at Pho Dakao (15532 Ward St, Garden Grove, CA 92843 Ph: 714-531-2009). The chicken is freshly slaughtered each day, and poached so perfectly that even the white meat is moist and tender. For the hardcore foodie, get it with all the special ingredients such as chicken heart, liver, gizzard and intestines. I love the gizzard, but not the other stuff. You can order your pho with white or dark meat and they serve it on a separate plate with a garlic sauce for dipping.

Alternatively, pho ga at Pho Nguyen Hue (10487 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA 92684 Ph: 714-839-8916) is not too bad. Here, you can ask for bun (rice vermecelli) instead of pho noodles. Some restaurants won't allow you to substitute.

Eating is very subjective and regardless of what I may think, there will always be others who will beg to differ. All I can say is, if you are a fan of pho, go try it out. That's the only way you'll know if you like it!


melissa said...

I've heard of Dakao, I believe from Edwin or Gustavo at OC Weekly. Would love to try it since I find the chicken in most pho ga dry and chewy.

I also was Yelping one night recently, really reading in depth about a lot of spots in Little Saigon, searching for the best pho, and I printed the directions to Pho 79 on Hazard. It had a lot of great reviews, but I honed in on yours because I know we go for the same qualities in pho and I trust your judgment on it. I'll make it over there on a weekend in January.

Kat said...

Wow detailed Pho tip. Thanks. I will have to share with my family since they love Pho and I am not usually a big fan. Maybe if I go to one of the better Pho places I will be turned.