Here we go, folks: Round 2 of our epic Final Pho tournament, where Dave, Edwin, Shuji, and Gustavo each picked four pho restaurants in a 16-team fight to determine who is the pho king of Little Saigon--and therefore, the United States. Now comes the brutal matches, and here's our opener: two titans, Pho Dakao and Pho Nguyen Hue, as reported by Gustavo . . .
One of our commentators earlier in the tournament left a remark to the effect that they didn't understand the allure of chicken pho, that they found it too weak in flavor. I responded to the effect that pho gà is a completely different beast altogether. To use a boxing metaphor, chicken pho is Archie Moore to beef pho's Joe Louis . . . Oh, wait, no one pays attention to boxing anymore. Okay: beef pho would be the Fab Five of the University of Michigan back in the early 1990s, the brash, brilliant, assertive team that tore through competitors like a bully through some nerd's backpack. Chicken pho would be the Duke and North Carolina squads that beat them in the NCAA championship: careful, methodical, nuanced. Great beef pho hits you with meat, with long-simmered broth, with star anise, cinnamon and other herbs playing the reserve role; great chicken pho also features the same attributes, but is gentler, smoother, kinder--and, to me, better.
My favorite pho place in Orange County has long been Pho Dakao, legendary for its chicken pho prepared with poultry from its own farm. It breezed through its opening-round match based on its superlative soup, but I immediately saw trouble when I tried Pho Nguyen Hue's monster of a beef pho, one of the best I've ever had. I maintain that comparing beef and chicken pho on the same level is impossible, and I couldn't pick a favorite between Dakao and Nguyen Hue--this, despite my pre-match bias toward Dakao (Nguyen Hue's beef pho is THAT good). So . . . OVERTIME!
Just half a mile of Ward Street separates Dakao and Nguyen Hue, and the restaurants are identical in many ways. Both feature ramshackle add-ons: Dakao's is a strange chute that gives the place a layout in the shape of the letter T, while Nguyen Hue's extra dining room has strange Spanish-style arches. Though each keeps a long menu, the owners automatically bring fully stocked herb trays, already knowing you will order pho.
But here is the crucial difference: While Pho Dakao serves beef pho, it's unremarkable--good, but not great, a pho that wouldn't get it out of the first round 'round here. No one goes to Pho Dakao for the beef pho--that'd be like going to Morton's for a salad. Pho Nguyen Hue, on the other hand--remarkably, amazingly--is ambidextrous: Not only is its beef pho spectacular, but its chicken pho matches up to Pho Dakao's take. Few, if any other, pho shops can master the two; they specialize in one, treating the other as an afterthought.
That's great and all for Nguyen Hue--but can it match up against Dakao?
It's a back-and-forth battle. Pho Dakao's chicken is freshly slaughtered from its own stock, which gives it a bounce and texture unlike most of its competitors--but Nguyen Hue sees that bet and raises it with bigger, more plentiful pieces. Dakao's broth is as yellow as a canary, gloriously fatty with schmaltz, beating Nguyen Hue in that category--but not by much, as Nguyen Hue's chicken broth is light and not at all salty. And in both, the noodles are impeccable, flopping into individual strands after being lifted in the air.
The tiebreaker, however, is the dipping sauce.
Dipping sauce is a standard for chicken pho--you dunk the meat into a ginger-spiked fish sauce, adding tanginess to the heat and fat of the broth. Pho Dakao rightfully gets acclaim for its dipping sauce--but Nguyen Hue beats it down easily. Look at that electric-orange above, unctuous and zipping with tiny ginger chunks that pop between molars. I half-wanted to take the rest of it home and use for a marinade.
I never thought of ordering chicken pho at Nguyen Hue--I did years ago and remembered loving it, but its beef pho is so dominant, so loud and needing of slurping that it's the go-to choice for me and so many others. But Nguyen Hue beats Pho Dakao on its own turf--double-overtime thriller! However, keep in mind that pho gà is Nguyen Hue's junior choice, the Pippen to its beef pho Jordan. Taken together--and including that Nguyen Hue is open seven days a week to Dakao's six, offers its pho a dollar cheaper AND throws in free, cooling chilled red-bean soup as a dessert--and, as much as it pains me to say this, . . .
WINNER, AND IT MOVES ON TO THE FINAL PHO: Pho Nguyen Hue in a win that looks closer than it really was. Pho Dakao is my pho love, and I really thought my bias for it would overshadow my journalism--but we are a paper of the Truth. My apologies, Pho Dakao, but . . .
Pho Dakao, 15532 Ward St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2009.
Pho Nguyen Huey, 10487 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-8916.
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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