Pho King Way's brisket two ways, and a side order of oxtail
Pho King Way's brisket two ways, and a side order of oxtail

Battle: South County Pho!

Little Saigon's pho shops make the best in the Orange County, and we dare say, the best in the country. That community is home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, after all. We haven't yet found a pho joint south of the Y that makes a bowl that comes close to Little Saigon's top tier. But sometimes, like on a limited lunch hour, the drive to pho paradise just isn't possible and you settle for Mr. Right Now, instead of Mr. Right.

For this week's Eat Here, Not There: It's Mission Viejo's Pho King Way versus Lake Forest's Pho Bo Vang.

Pho King Way made a splash when it opened earlier this year, mainly because the name offended a bunch of its Mission Viejo neighbors. Despite that gimmicky hook and the low expectations of a restaurant far outside of the intense competition in Little Saigon, it's actually a better-than-decent bowl of pho.

The soup comes out a rich, dark brown, which indicates either a lot of meat in the broth, or lots of charred onion, or perhaps a longer period of simmering so its colors and flavors concentrate. Whatever the case, the flavor of Pho King Way's soup tastes remarkably dense of meat, spices such as star anise, and a lingering savoriness of something... maybe dried mushroom. Someone's taking a long time to cook the broth, which is the star of the bowl here.

Rather than the more common way of picking a bowl where the restaurant has pre-selected the cuts of beef that go into it, you choose, a la carte, your favorite beef cuts to put into the bowl, like tendon, brisket, and tripe, for example. I ordered both kinds of brisket available here, and neither of the thinly-sliced briskets were simmered as long as they ought to be, and came out chewy. The noodles? Though cooked well enough, they came out clumped into a ball, as though the kitchen had pre-prepared the rice noodles long before I arrived.

Pho Bo Vang's #6 special
Pho Bo Vang's #6 special

Lake Forest's Pho Bo Vang has long been my pho favorite in South County, and even though there are closer shops, I'd drive the extra couple of freeway exits to eat there. This week's visit, my first in about a year, revealed the soup has literally paled into a fraction of its former grandeur. What was once rich and flavorful now resembles pale dirty dishwater, with not nearly the quality it once had. Notice the plate of herb (singular) and sprouts has no lime, nor lemon. Limes are plentiful and cheap this time of year, but instead of a fresh lime wedge, Pho Bo Vang brought out... commercial lemon juice from concentrate, in a squeeze bottle.

What?? Never mind that their once-tasty broth tastes weak, or that the herb plate doesn't include jalapeno,cilantro or the sawtoothed culantro leaves that you'd get in even the most mediocre pho joint in Little Saigon. Pretty much every South County pho restaurant will gabacho you that way and I don't blame those restaurants for not spending money on the more ethnic herbs that most non-Vietnamese diners tend to discard anyway. But cheaping out on fresh lime and using bottled juice from concentrate? What Pho Bo Vang should concentrate is its focus on bringing back their former quality.

Either way, these 10 great pho palaces in Little Saigon shouldn't lose any sleep over this week's outcome, but the winner by a mile: Pho King Way!

Pho King Way, 24000 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. 23, Mission Viejo, (949) 472-5464.; Pho Bo Vang, 23764 Mercury Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 707-5768.

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