Photo by Matt OttoSusan Kang Schroeder warned me; I didn't believe her. We were at Pho Hien Vuong in Santa Ana a couple of weeks back, about to guzzle down the last drops of our therapeutic pho, when owner Chanh Hoang began arguing with a customer. Seems the Latino patron tried to leave without paying, and Hoang wouldn't allow him to beg off.
Gentle words soon turned to invectives, and the customer suddenly lunged at the diminutive Hoang, who in turn shoved the man and was prepared to do worse, except a prosecutor for the Orange County district attorney's gang unit sat nearby. The prosecutor didn't flinch—he was too busy crocheting through his pho noodles.
"You get all kinds of people here," Kang, spokeswoman for DA Tony Rackauckas, marveled just a couple of minutes before the brawl. "Law people, police officers, criminals—everyone wants their pho. Gets pretty interesting sometimes."
Wasn't that the truth.
The sheep have lain with the lions at Pho Hien Vuong since 1980, when it reputedly became the first Orange County restaurant to boil the renowned beef noodle soup. Almost nothing has changed in those 25 years. The décor remains Miami Vice-inspired—pink-and-teal paint job, a couple of sturdy tables, a mirrored wall, and tableaux depicting a bucolic Vietnam. Speakers squawk with the talk-radio ruminations of the Little Saigon airwaves. Lapsed time from ordering your entrée to slurping through it to waddling out to a dilapidated parking lot: still 10 minutes, max.
Pho Hien Vuong does serve other things besides its namesake dish: bouncy goi cuon (spring rolls); rice domes towering over chunks of sautéed beef, chicken or steamed vegetables; and the fabulous chilled vermicelli salad known as bún. But most of Orange County's legal community speeds in from the faraway Central Court for one of the restaurant's 18 primordial phos.
Whether you order it with beef, chicken or just veggies, each pho bowl is a dense sea of ruler-long rice noodles waving within an anise-scented broth like seaweed. The pho arrives decorated only with scallions and your choice of meat; you decide how many sprouts, mint leaves and jalapeño slivers to splash in. Best of the choices is the pho dac biet (house special), a cow in a bowl rammed with envelope-thin slices of uncooked steak, skirt and flank coupled with tendon and tripe (those squeamish of offal can order pho containing only one cut. Pussies). There's even a pho made with shrimp; Hoang once told NguoiViet,the NewYorkTimesof Little Saigon, that this pho de camarones was a favorite of Latino customers.
But when Kang and I visited Pho Hien Vuong, there was no love lost between Orange County's most prominent ethnic groups. The Latino finally ducked out of Hoang's grasp; Hoang would've chased after him if his wife hadn't frantically interceded. "Did you see that? They were nearly going to get in a fight!" I exuded to Kang as the Latino stormed past us toward the door. Kang looked at Hoang, then at the Latino, and shrugged as she reached for the last fried egg roll.