Little Saigon—shit, I'm still in Little Saigon. It's 3 a.m., driving back home after a Friday evening with a lady friend. Chilly winds howl outside the sanctuary of my Camry. I need something steaming and filling. I need pho.
But 24-hour dining options are few. Norms and Taquería de Anda are far away; Denny's blows. None of my usual Vietnamese joints are open this late, but their neon marquees guide me down Bolsa Avenue toward PHO HOA, a worldwide chain of pho joints with shops from Malaysia to Brunei to Tamarac, Florida. Outside this Westminster location, near the Cultural Court shopping plaza, Vietnamese men suck on cigarettes and cackle at a joke made by a stone-faced security guard—or maybe they're laughing at me. Inside, however, the restaurant is an inviting oasis, a shelter against the December cold. Airy Viet-pop plays. Large, colorful posters explain in English the intricacies of pho, but there are no novices this early morning, judging by the tables of slurpers. These diners span the spectrum of Little Saigon: older folks, dressed-up Vietnamese-American youths returning from parties, non-Vietnamese with their Vietnamese friends. And me, dining alone.
There's more than pho here. I contemplate ordering the pho bò kho, a murky carrot-beef stew advertised on the wall. And I make a mental note to try Pho Hoa's chile-glazed salmon next time. But there are just too many pho options to ignore: Pho Hoa offers 19 types, ranging from a vegetarian pho to pho ga (chicken version) to something that promises "fatty and crunch flank." I stick to the safe and filling pho tai.
The pho tai arrives just two minutes after I point it out to the waiter. I order the small, but when my pho arrives, it's in a bowl the size of a newborn's bathtub. Pho Hoa's namesake is great, not the best I've tasted but with the largest, softest steak slices, massive cuts almost as big as poker cards and chopped just as thin. They come raw, but the scalding, aromatic broth in the bowl cooks them to a medium-rare consistency, and they're sweet.
Everything else about this pho tai fulfills my early-morning expectations. The rice noodles are long and wavy; the scallions floating around impart a bit of spice; the platter of bean sprouts, mint leaves, jalapeños and cilantro I toss in adds much-needed crunch. And then I douse the soup with squirts of Sriracha hot sauce and lemon—warm, tangy bliss. My bed awaits, but Pho Hoa has already blanketed me with warmth and love.