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. Now, Gustavo's final first-round matchup between two of the oldest Vietnamese restaurants in Orange County: Pho Hien Vuong and Pho Nguyen Hue.
I'm currently teaching a class at Cal State Fullerton, for which I'm overseeing a group of students conduct oral histories of Latino restaurants in Orange County. It's about time someone did it because scholarship on the subject (and on OC restaurants in general) is embarrassingly sparse. I know Cal State Fullerton's Center for Oral and Public History is beginning to rectify the situation--but it's focusing on chain restaurants, not the mom-and-pops, and definitely not Vietnamese eateries.
I'd do it, but I don't speak Vietnamese. But if I could, I'd first poke around and try to figure out the most important question: Which Orange County restaurant was the first to sell pho?
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Nguoi Viet, the New York Times of Little Saigon, stated back in 2004 it was Pho Hien Vuong in Santa Ana, open since 1980. But in our Best of OC issue last year, chef Haley Nguyen of Xanh Bistro--no slouch on the knowledge of Viet cooking--said it was Pho Nguyen Hue in Westminster. Who to believe? Let's place them in the same bracket to decide veteran supremacy that way.
Of the two, Pho Hien Vuong is fresher-looking because it got new owners a couple of years ago who followed that era's one-and-a-half-to-second-generation trend of fancying up Vietnamese restaurants with better designs and higher-quality ingredients. You can see the picture at right--the tired chairs, the random photos, the peek of a teal-blue-and-bright-pink décor dating from the days of Miami Vice. That's in the past; the newer Pho Hien Vuong is gorgeous, featuring dramatic paintings of a mythical Vietnam, shiny tables (look at the picture of the pho above) and a more-helpful staff.
The only problem? They raised the price of pho--from $4 to the edge of six bucks. The quality of the ingredients ostensibly improved--I was able to discern it in the beef used in the pho tai, buttery and bloody, like a concentrated carpaccio, one of the best beef offerings in Little Saigon. Even better, Pho Hien Vuong offered folds of the meat, not the stray slices offered by others. But the broth was passable, and the noodles too starchy and stuck in a ball even after I lifted them up in the air.
It was a good pho, but not great, and barely worth $6, especially when compared to the pho tai at Pho Nguyen Hue.
Pho Nguyen Hue is probably most famous in Little Saigon for selling beef-penis pho, a delicacy our sometimes-correspondent Eddie Lin memorably tried a while back. I wasn't getting that--I was sticking to the pho tai and took along Michelle as a guest judge. The diversity of Pho Hien Vuong (half-Latino, half-Vietnamese) wasn't here: It was all older Viets. The décor was also proudly retro, with a recent article about the restaurant seemingly the only addition to the dining room since the Reagan era. Maybe the ambiance and ingredients aren't as pricey as what Pho Hien Vuong offers, but here's a classic example of not fixing something that isn't broke.
They sold beef pho as close to perfect as I've ever tasted it, with a broth bordering on the tint of orange. Look at the pinkness of the rare beef! Noodles that slurped and gave way to chews. An assertive broth, fragrant with cinnamon. I tried to get Michelle to offer me a quote, but she couldn't muster any words, so rightfully wowed was she by Pho Nguyen Hue's pho. Even better? It came with a free bowl of chilled red-bean soup as dessert, all clocking in at less than $5.
Winner By Blowout: Pho Nguyen Hue. My respects to Pho Hien Vuong, but it wasn't even close; Pho Nguyen Hue's total pho dominated. I'm now scared for Pho Dakao, whom Nguyen Hue will face off against in the second round--Dakao is my favorite pho spot, but Nguyen Hue makes a killer chicken pho as well, and I ain't playing favorites. . . .
Pho Hien Vuong, 2525 Westminster Ave., Ste. H, Santa Ana, (714) 554-2696.
Pho Nguyen Huey, 10487 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-8916.