Welcome to OC Weekly's Final Pho. Sixteen pho shops chosen from the more than 100 in the county; four critics who know what the pho makes a good bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. The chosen 16 will face off in each of our brackets, two by two. This episode will be played by the numbers--the last match-up in Round 1.
Staring at each other moodily catercornered at the intersection of Brookhurst and Hazard are two of the most beloved, O.G. pho shops in Orange County. They're so O.G. that, in a nod to the utilitarian naming policies of the Vietnamese government, they are identified not by name, but by number. Pho 79 is in Garden Grove; Pho 86 is in Westminster, the two grandes dames of the Vietnamese diaspora in this county.
Pho 79 might be one of the best values in Little Saigon, next to Thanh Lich's $2.99 happy hour, particularly for the small bowl of pho. It is jammed with good-quality meat, the broth has great body and is redolent of cinnamon, and servers will happily bring you all the sprouts you care to drown in the soup. It's also the only pho shop I've seen in Little Saigon to have a kids' menu.
The glory of Pho 79 is the portioning. If you get lucky, there will be more meat than noodles in the bowl; the difference in sizes seems to be the amount of broth ladled in. The rare beef is cut thinly enough to float on top, but thickly enough to remain pink and tender even halfway into the consumption of the bowl. The flank is almost sweet, and the tendons have the perfect blend of squoosh and pop. The noodles separate with one poke of a chopstick, and the broth may be the one that marries the best with
Pho 86 may be the friendliest "real" pho shop in Little Saigon. Non-Vietnamese are greeted with a knowing smile--people don't just happen into pho shops by accident--and there is no "whiting" other than the discreet appearance of a fork on the far end of the table, which won't happen if you've already set up chopsticks, spoon and sauce dish.
The best tables at Pho 86 are on the far right as you enter, against a tinted window that lets diners see the inner workings of the shop. This is a place with quick service; pre-portioned table salads (basil, saw-tooth herb, citrus, chiles and sprouts) are stacked on the counter, noodles are scooped into bowls with practiced ease, meats are tossed in willy-nilly (except for rare beef), and the broth is ladled from stockpots that could hold kindergartners. Everything is done with clockwork precision, and a bowl of finished pho is never more than five minutes away.
Pho is a breakfast food in Vietnam, and in a nod to that tradition and the grim realities of life as a worker in these United States, Pho 86 opens at 5 a.m. The broth at that dismal hour is lighter and more subtle because it has not had all day to concentrate. As the day winds on, the broth gets darker and more fragrant, though never murky--it is ladled through strainers to ensure its clarity. No matter when you go, however, this is in the top echelon of pho broths in the county. If you prefer more body, you can ask for a side of nuoc beo--fat skimmed from the huge pot of broth--to mix with your pho as you eat it.
What sets Pho 86 apart from every other pho shop in Little Saigon, however, is its fatty brisket (gau). Most shops serve fatty brisket cut like bacon or Korean barbecue, thin strips meant to mimic the cuts of the other meats in the broth. Here, fatty brisket comes in unapologetic cubes, which soften and mellow in the boiling broth nearly to the point of structural failure. The result is a quivering, ever-so-slightly gelatinous cube of pure beef. If I could only have one meat in pho for the rest of my life, Pho 86's gau would be it.
A difficult match-up, to be sure. This very nearly went to overtime (Battle Vietnamese Iced Coffee, which both places make at the table for you), but in the end, the unique cut of the fatty brisket at Pho 86 and the availability of really excellent meatballs as an upcharge gave it a cross-court three-pointer at the buzzer.
Winner: Pho 86, but just barely. It will go on to face Pho Quang Trung in the quarterfinals of Final Pho.
Pho 79, 9941 Hazard Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2490.
Pho 86, 14576 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 839-4591.
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PREVIOUS ROUND 1 WINNERS:
Pho Dakao vs. Kim Loan: Pho Dakao
AnQi vs. Benley: Benley
Pho Thanh Lich vs. Pho Vinh Ky 2: Pho Thanh Lich
Pho Kimmy vs. Pho Quang Trung: Pho Quang Trung
Pho Hien Vuong vs. Pho Nguyen Hue: Pho Nguyen Hue
Brodard Chateau vs. S Vietnamese Fine Dining: Brodard Chateau
Pho Thang Long vs. Quan Hop: Quan Hop