Four pho shops face off in each of our brackets, two by two. For today's bout, two of Little Saigon's old-school heavyweights square off and trade body blows until only one leaves the ring alive. In the
red green corner--Pho Thanh Lich, last year's Weekly champeen for Best Pho. In the blue corner--Pho Vin Ky II, winner of the recent Dueling Dishes: Fish Pho Faceoff. Now, on to the action . . .
Pho is soul-nourishing poverty food, and as such, the more of the tough, cheap parts of the steer go into the broth, the better it gets. Tough, fatty beef brisket adds a rich, beefy flavor to the broth, while collagen-rich tendons simmer until they dissolve into gelatin and thicken the broth. The more old-school the shop, you're more likely you are to find the "nasty bits" like tendon and tripe on the menu, as well as the customers who love them.
Pho Thanh Lich's soup is ALWAYS dead-on: rich in mouthfeel, beefy in flavor and brown in color, instead of the thin, gray, dirty dishwater served at lesser pho shops. The most difficult cuts of meat to cook well--the fatty, fibrous brisket, tendon and tough tripe--are cooked expertly. Every. Single. Time.
As though to show off the quality of the more expensive raw beef tenderloin, Thanh Lich slices the meat thicker than most shops before laying it atop the bowl of hot soup to poach until cooked through. Despite the thicker cut, the meat yields easily to the teeth. Bottom line: The pho dac biet is the star player, the one that shows off how well the kitchen works with both the expensive beef cuts and the nasty bits.
Pho Vinh Ky II's top fighter is its fish pho, at least for this seafood-loving pho-natic. The slightly sweet beef broth soup sings boldly with the flavor of star anise and clove. Large chunks of mild-flavored basa fish are always cooked perfectly. I order the fish pho every time at Vinh Ky II because it's executed so well.
Mano a mano, these two bowls are equally great, and I can't call a winner. So this match goes into a sudden-death shootout with players off the bench. Never mind that I'm switching from a boxing meta-pho to hockey. Keep up with me!
Meet the golden chicken stock of Pho Thanh Lich's chicken pho. Some pho shops make chicken pho with the same beef broth as they use in every other bowl. Than Lich makes a great chicken stock for its three variations on chicken pho. The least expensive one uses chicken-breast meat, the least flavorful part of the chicken. The most expensive pho ga dui uses the more flavorful dark meat, and the leg is simmered gently so as to not toughen the meat while it cooks. The mid-priced pho ga long adds the organ meats, including the gizzards and hearts.
But this broth! Slicked with yellow schmaltz, it's every bit the curative elixir that any Jewish grandmother would be proud to call her own. The chicken flavor is concentrated as the broth simmers down throughout the day, but so is the salt content. Perhaps this might be better during lunch, when the salt is not as concentrated. It's a minor nit in an otherwise brilliant soup. Thanh Lich shoots with chicken pho, and Thanh Lich scores!!
Skating up to center ice: the fully loaded bowl of beef pho at Pho Vin Ky II, with well-done flat and point cuts of brisket, plus well-done drop flank, tendon and tripe. The broth, perfectly delicious and balanced when used in the more delicate fish pho, seems overwhelmed and a little thin when weighed down with the more substantial red meats. Compared to Thanh Lich's pho dac biet, even the color of the soup is paler. Perhaps there's less muscle meat in the broth? Perhaps there's less charred onion in the broth? Whatever the reason, the soup is less beefy-tasting, and the tougher meats like the brisket aren't as tender as Thanh Lich's.
Winner: Pho Thanh Lich!
What makes a champion? Consistent excellence in everything. Once again, last year's champ comes through with perfectly executed beef pho and an equally talented wing man, the chicken pho. Let's see how Pho Thanh Lich fares in round 2 against some new-school pho shops. . . . In the meanwhile, onward on the bracket!
Pho Thanh Lich, 14500 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 531-5789.
Pho Vinh Ky II, 14390 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-4965.
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