First match in our 16-restaurant tournament to determine once and for all who sells the best pho in Orange County. Tune in tomorrow for Shuji's showdown!
My first sip of cà phê đá was at Coffee Factory in Fountain Valley. My first bánh mì was at--predictably--Lee's Sandwiches. But my first foray into pho was far away from the Little Saigon crowds--at Kim Loan in Fullerton (it's also the first place where Edwin ate Vietnamese food as well). It's most likely the oldest Vietnamese restaurant outside Little Saigon, with an interior design (mirrors for walls, pink as a primary color, fake greenery) straight from the 1980s. I can never hate this place, even if the quality of food ever deteriorated, which it thankfully hasn't after all these years.
Kim Loan's best rendition of pho is pho tai--rare slices of beef, pink upon the delivery of your bowl to your table and eventually browning. It's a pho of heartiness, of fulfillment, and it's definitely the best pho in North County. But this is the Big Bowl Dance, so my criteria must be even more demanding, especially given Kim Loan's competitor in this round: the mighty Pho Dakao of Garden Grove.
The pros: enough broth in which to bathe a child. Star-anise-heavy broth, beefy and strong, sweet like cinnamon, with a touch of garlic. A broth so comforting and filling I've gone an entire day without eating anything else after slurping it down for breakfast.
But that's Kim Loan's sole trump card. The noodles were a bit too chewy and thin, while the amount of meat in the bowl was disappointing. Also? This is a pho geared toward multicultural Fullerton, where Chinese, Koreans and Mexicans are more likely to crowd into the restaurant than Vietnamese. The tray of herbs only included bean sprouts, basil, jalapeños and lemon--fine, but not adding enough layers to compensate for the lack of the meat.
Compare Kim Loan's offerings to that of Pho Dakao, the legendary chicken pho restaurant in Garden Grove that gets its hens from its own poultry factory.
I don't think I've ever even seen a menu at Pho Dakao, though they have one--I'm told it's a faded-but-cute list with a smiling chicken on the cover. But after the owners sit you, after they give you about 35 seconds to sit down and settle yourself, they'll approach you and wait for the inevitable: your order of pho ga, just the noodles and springy, chewy chicken.
In goes sawtooth herb, adding astringency. On the side is a small bowl of dipping sauce, sugary and spicy, in which everyone dips fat, Cadillac-white chunks of chicken, some with skin, some without. That sauce, those chunks--if all Pho Dakao offered was this, it could beat the entire roster of most Vietnamese restaurants.
But of course, there's more. The noodles were thicker than Kim Loan's yet firmer; the broth was much lighter, with a cleaner taste. Scallions and onions didn't overwhelm the delicate broth, but rather firmed it up; even the cilantro, an herb I'm not particularly fond of, added a verdant undertone. The bowl was smaller than Kim Loan's, but each individual ingredient coalesced to easily beat its competitor (I'll save you the sports metaphor).
WINNER: Pho Dakao, which moves on to Round 2. But Kim Loan will forever remain in my heart, my dowager of dinner.
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Pho Dakao, 15532 Ward St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2009; Kim Loan, 1651 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 773-0374