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, the last day of Round 2, two of the favorites square off.
In the actual Final Four, there are occasional upsets, teams no one expected to go very far advancing due to a misstep by the favorite team. In the Final Pho, this too can happen. The star player turns his ankle; the favorite cook makes one crucial mistake from which the game can never recover.
Pho Quang Trung has an enormous menu, from a full page's worth of homestyle specialities to any kind of noodle ever sold in Vietnam, but it's known for its chicken pho, which propelled it to easy victory over Pho Kimmy in Round 1 of Final Pho. For Round 2, it was time for the beef pho to take its turn in the hot seat.
On a lark, the bowl ordered was "mixed beef"--white-people-speak for "everything including the nasty bits"--with beef meatballs. Vietnamese beef meatballs are not the light, airy balls the Italians serve, nor the allspice-flecked balls with cream gravy so popular in Sweden, but a dense, springy ball made of beef that has been pounded into paste. They're normally sliced, and in the soup, they made a surprisingly tasty addition to a bowl that contained perfectly soft and perfectly rare tái (rare beef), an almost-smoky flank steak, a tendon that popped appealingly, very, very thinly shredded tripe, and brisket cut whisper-thin.
Pho Quang Trung's beef broth is very slightly too salty; it would have been a point against them, except that squeezing the lemon into the broth corrected it perfectly. The only other complaint with the beef pho at Quang Trung was that there was exactly one piece of tripe and one piece of tendon in the bowl. With six meats in the bowl, there wouldn't be room for tons of either, but at least two pieces for comparison's sake would have been best.
The second visit to Pho 86 was for morning pho, beef noodle soup for breakfast after a workout--a capital idea, incidentally. The brisket was sublime as always, the rare pho that perfect silkiness, but the problem was the tripe: it tasted very faintly of, well, what tripe shouldn't taste like. Tripe is always a little bit funky, and it's not clear whether the cause of the funkiness was because it wasn't as carefully attended to or because the broth in the morning is less assertive and less likely to cover the sins of tripe. The shibboleth of the true pho eater is whether a bowl of dac biet is actually empty or if there are little pieces of bible tripe left in the bottom. Unfortunately, Pho 86 made a misstep here: One tiny tactical error--the tripe was left in the bowl--cost them the opportunity to advance.
WINNER, AND ONTO THE FINAL PHO: Pho Quang Trung, but only because the bracket is won or lost by the last game played. Pho 86 is a worthy destination, and its pho game was well-played--the offending tripe is easily eliminated from the bowl, but this is about pho perfection.
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Pho 86, 14576 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 839-4591.
Pho Quang Trung, 10072 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 638-2286.
Pho Quang Trung (location not reviewed), 9211 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 891-2800.
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
Pho Thang Long vs. Quan Hop: Quan Hop
Pho 79 vs. Pho 86: Pho 86