It was with great trepidation that I sat down at a table at Saigon de Pho, a new Vietnamese restaurant in the Santa Ana Mainplace mall. It had all the hallmarks of a mistake in the making: the location in a mall so soulless that it could literally be in any city in America; the fancy décor with the wall of running water; the IKEA-chic tables and chairs; the American-style service.
I very nearly abandoned the effort to attempt it; I had already composed a snarky introduction to this place, this soup den in the extremely non-Asian wolf's lair.
And yet when I ordered chả giò, they were accompanied by an herb platter the likes of which has never been seen in Orange County: thickly curled lettuce, perilla leaf the size of my hand, and basil so fresh it snapped off the stems. If only they had had the crenellated crusts that are the shibboleth of Vietnamese egg rolls versus Chinese!
The phở, too, is a classical Vietnamese menu translated into fluent English. There's thickly sliced flank steak barely held together by soft connective tissue; there are tendons with just the right combination of chewiness and crunch; there are beef meatballs, and there is a side plate layered with deep, dark red filet mignon, meant to be cooked in the broth. You can practically feel your anemia fleeing.
There is a separate bowl of nearly-boiling broth there; while the main bowl of pho cools quickly thanks to the mass of noodles in the center, this broth stays warm enough to cook your filet mignon to rare. Of course, when you're done, you can add it to your big bowl. The noodles are a bit clumpy, perhaps because it wasn't very busy and they'd sat, but a few minutes of assault from my chopsticks and they fell apart into nicely cooked, springy rice sticks. The broth was rich and viscous, and most importantly, it smelled of the charred onion that is required to make it.
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So what if it's $7.95 for a bowl of phở that would cost $6 in Little Saigon? You're not in Little Saigon. You're a few steps away from the ridiculously pompous Nordstrom. You can bring a date (but not a first date) here. They check on you now and then; they bring you the check instead of making you go up to the counter for it.
The biggest compliment I can pay Saigon de Pho is that it's a Little Saigon restaurant transported to the most soulless, sterile environment possible: a suburban shopping mall. And given the other options in the mall, like California Pizza Kitchen and the microwave-chic Olive Garden, this is far and away your best choice.
Inside Westfield Mainplace, 2800 N. Main St., Suite 1030, Santa Ana; 714-550-0755.