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. Today's match marks the halfway point of Round 1 with two of the busiest pho shops in Orange County: Westminster's Pho Kimmy vs. Garden Grove's Pho Quang Trung.
The first challenge at Pho Kimmy is parking. There won't be any; you'll be forced to get creative with the strict limits of the other businesses' "no parking or we'll tow" zones.
Pho Kimmy has made major strides toward accessibility; the menu is simple (only beef pho, various cuts, in three sizes) and well-translated, and there is even--hold on to your hats here--a Caucasian waiter who speaks fluent Vietnamese and English. The friendliness of the service is a step up from the usual hole-in-the-wall pho shop. There are a number of additions you can add, from rare beef on the side to hanh dam (onions in vinegar), all for 50 cents to a dollar extra.
Where the service falls down is in timing. The place is very busy, but the pho comes out in firehose-like spurts from the kitchen. There will be no bowls coming out for 10 minutes, then 30 bowls of pho will emerge at once. It took about 20 minutes for our order to arrive--an eternity in Little Saigon.
The pho itself is fairly good. The taste of the broth is properly beefy without the telltale umami of Knorr seasoning, the noodles are easy to separate, and the portion of meat is a good value for the price paid. Two minor quibbles: Even before the addition of tai (rare beef), the broth is slightly cloudy and murky, and there are visible blobs of oil on top. And the table salad--the plate of bean sprouts, herbs, chiles and citrus that is meant to doctor the soup--contained just two lonely sprigs of Thai basil, two pieces of chile, a small pile of sprouts, and a lemon rather than the more traditional lime.
One major criticism: while the fact that you can get the rare beef on the side is a good sign, one that's fairly rare on a menu even in Little Saigon, the backup in the kitchen means the broth is not hot enough to cook the beef properly when it gets to your table. The pho was actually just warm when it hit the table, and tepid five minutes later, which is not acceptable--and to get a bowl of boiling-hot soup to correct the temperature is an upcharge.
Pho Quang Trung might be the busiest pho shop in Little Saigon. Though there are two branches, the original is on Westminster near Brookhurst has a bizarre parking lot, as well as a perpetual line. People line up for this pho even at 3 in the afternoon.
When I visited Pho Quang Trung for its Final Pho entry, the power was out all over northeastern Garden Grove. Traffic lights were out, snarling the already-bad traffic on Brookhurst. Undaunted, Pho Quang Trung kept dishing out its huge menu. Besides beef and chicken pho, there's a full menu of northern dishes and enough noodles to stretch from Garden Grove to Da Nang.
Pho Quang Trung has good beef pho, but its speciality is chicken pho, so the order went out for a bowl of its best dish. You can order it "white boy"-style (just white and dark meat), or you can order it how it was meant to be eaten.
"You want the skin and the et cetera?" the waiter asked, skeptical.
"Yes. I want all the et cetera you can load into my bowl," I replied.
Chicken pho comes with a separate bowl of sweet, tangy sauce that's akin to the dipping sauce for nem nuong cuon. You're meant to dip the chicken in that, and then eat the soup. You'll also be given lemons (is there a lime shortage in Southern California?) and a salad plate with two kinds of chiles, plenty of bean sprouts, Thai basil and ngo gai, the long, saw-leaf cousin of cilantro.
It's almost impossible to describe the deep, golden color of the broth and the essence of chicken it portends. If it weren't for the taste that matches the color perfectly, I'd suspect foul (fowl?) play with coloring.
The broth is loaded with an generous quarter-chicken's worth of meat: an entire breast, plus a thigh (the drumsticks are a separate order). A liver, cut into manageable cubes, hides on one side, and a couple of gizzards, springy yet still tender, lurk under the surface. The meat is absolutely perfectly cooked; the breast is soft and tender, the thigh slightly firmer, and the liver provides a shock to the palate. The skin, bumpy-looking and shockingly yellow, was soft and not remotely gummy. The noodles are perfectly al dente at the beginning, softening slightly in the hot broth. A damn-near-perfect bowl of pho ga.
One final nicety: Pho Quang Trung serves a free cup of sweet red-bean soup with every meal. It'll be dropped off with a small plastic spoon on your table.
The winner here is clear: Pho Quang Trung. Its excellent chicken pho will go on to Round 2 against the winner of the upcoming numbers game: Pho 79 vs. Pho 86.
Pho Kimmy, 14932 Bushard St., Westminster, (714) 775-1699.
Pho Quang Trung, 10072 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 638-2286.
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Location not reviewed:
Pho Quang Trung, 9211 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 891-2800.