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. The next match-up has Shuji revisiting the upscale branch of his bracket.
For this round, two new-school pho specialists duke it out with variations on pho with filet mignon. When your boss, date or in-laws from out of town tap you for good, real-deal Vietnamese food because you're the local expert, it would behoove you to take them to a place where they'll be suitably impressed.
Yet you still want a proper Little Saigon experience and to eat food that's not dumbed-down for non-Vietnamese palates. Can you do that without going to a white-linen-tablecloth restaurant where the specialty is a $28 Chilean sea bass entrée and not pho? Yes, you can, pho-natics, and this is where you take them!
I first wrote about Quan Hop five years ago, when it was brand-new and brought a much-needed style injection to the Little Saigon pho shop staus quo, and the food has only gotten better. How many pho shops look like they hired an architect or design firm to style the interior? At that time? None. Now, they're competing with Thang Long, which cribbed the same fashion-forward aesthetic that appeals to a younger, more Americanized and presumably more affluent audience. These two are the only pho specialists in Little Saigon playing in the glam league--hence today's matchup.
At these new-school joints, you can pay more than $8 for a bowl of pho, compared to the $2.99 pho bo happy-hour special at Pho Thanh Lich, but it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. See the beautiful pile of thinly shaved raw filet mignon in the photo above? Looks something like a mise en place for shabu-shabu, doesn't it? The "onside" in Pho Hop Tai Onside means you get well-done flank steak, tendon and meatballs in the soup, but the raw beef shavings are on the side, with their own cup of hot broth in which to steep the filet mignon, like meat tea.
The raw filet has the raw-meat mineral tang you also find in carpaccio, which releases into that side cup of broth. If you embrace your inner carnivore, pour that side cup into your bowl. Otherwise, pick out the filet, drained now of much of that raw animal funk. It's so thinly sliced and butter-soft it's almost like beef baby food. If you're inclined to order pho tai, which includes just the rare beef tenderloin and none of the nasty bits of tendon or tripe, Quan Hop does it with a flair and ceremony you won't find elsewhere.
Pho Thang Long is actually one of two restaurants located in the same strip mall. This one is the pho specialist, while its twin three doors down, Thang Long Restaurant, specializes in the rice dishes called com. Oddly enough, both menus look nearly interchangeable, and pho is served at both. Confusing? You bet. If you're sitting in the orange dining room, you're in the pho shop.
Thang Long offers a more traditional menu, with many options on the cuts of beef you can load into your bowl. As such, I tried the one with everything, plus raw filet mignon. The broth, deep-brown and delicious to the eye, tasted one-note and lacked the deep beef essence or the clarity of Quan Hop's.
Next point: the meat. Both shops use high-quality tenderloin, and both cook up tender and delicious. If you like yours with less of the minerality of raw beef, you might enjoy Thang Long's better.
But the flank steak at Thang Long? Completely undercooked and rubbery. It's more of a choking hazard than edible food. I'm sorry, Thang Long. You've never let me down that badly before, and it was probably a one-time fluke, but there's no room for trip-ups in the Weekly's Final Pho.
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Chin up, Thang Long, because the later it gets the better you look. Since you're open until 3 a.m. every day, you're still my No. 1 late-night pho buddy.
Winner of the Fancy-Pants Pho-Specialist Round: Quan Hop
Quan Hop, 15640 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 689-0555.
Pho Thang Long, 9550 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 115F Westminster, (714) 839 4955.
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