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 . . . well, let him introduce . . .
Today's battle pits old guard against new. Resolute tradition versus next-gen evolution: Pho Thanh Lich versus Quan Hop. What Ain't Broke versus the Fix.
If you consider pho a soup dish with noodles rather than a noodle dish with soup, you will share my enthusiasm for Quan Hop. Quan Hop's astoundingly delicious beef broth slots in as perhaps the most refined and flavorful in town and is so delicious I could eat a bowl of broth all by itself. That nearly-clear consomme is crafted with obvious attention to detail.
Where Quan Hop finesses the flavors out of a more limited selection of beef cuts, bones, vegetables and possibly chicken, Thanh Lich's tastes like a brute-force beef stock. Cram a stock pot full of cuts from all over the steer, and simmer it until the dissolved collagen slightly thickens the broth. The soup is consistently dead-on, as certain to deliver as Karl Malone.
The noodles at both shops are cooked perfectly, which speaks to the care that goes into them, as well as a high output of noodles from both kitchens. Rice noodles can be prepared by soaking them in cold water, then portioning them in bowls until an order comes in. If those pre-soaked noodles sit around too long, they seize into a solid ball of paste. But when cooked to order, they arrive as a loose twist of tresses, undone into silken strands with a caress of chopsticks.
Where Pho Thanh Lich and Quan Hop's bowls of pho differ most are the proteins that go into them. The former's old-school approach lists many cow parts on the menu with dozens of possible permutations you could combine from them. The challenge with this approach? Cooking all those random parts as perfectly as possible--a feat few master on a day-in, day-out basis. Thanh Lich manages that with zero fanfare for that damn-near-perfect technique.
The new-school pho specialist's approach is to eliminate all but the best-selling meat selections such as filet mignon, well-done flank and tendon, and then deliver them in a more focused presentation that spotlights each component. It's like the difference between a three-piece band like Green Day and a bigger band with a horn section like Rocket From the Crypt that rocks equally hard.
If you ate the pho hop tai onside at Quan Hop and Thanh Lich's pho dac biet every day until either restaurant tripped up, you might be eating for weeks before you could call a winner. They're both that consistently good at what they do. Comparing those two bowls day after day would be like a staring contest with your cat: more a test of wills than a winnable battle.
So how to break the stalemate, pho-natics?
I don't usually factor in the atmosphere of restaurants because what matters to me is what shows up on the table. All the same, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you what you're in for. Quan Hop is a place where you can take a casual first date and not embarrass anyone. On the other hand, if your date can come out of Thanh Lich's skeevy bathroom without missing a beat? That person is a keeper. On this point . . . it's a coin toss, depending on your priorities. If niceties like a good-looking room matter more than the food, you can stop reading right here and head to Quan Hop.
But I'm going to call this game based on the strength of Pho Thanh Lich's mastery of the broader range of beef bits they work with. Plus, they go to the trouble of making a chicken broth for the chicken pho rather than just using the beef stock.
As if it hasn't overachieved enough already, it makes a duck and bamboo-shoot pho on Saturdays and Sundays that's unlike any pho you've eaten. The tender pieces of bamboo shoot are both sweet and savory, much like their Japanese counterpart, menma, a common ramen topping. Instead of bean sprouts. basil and ngo gai on your herb plate, you'll get shredded cabbage and rau ram, a sharp, astringent herb also called Vietnamese coriander. The noodles in the duck pho are trimmed into short pieces that more easily sit in your soup spoon. And the duck? Simmered and served on the side, it's meant to be dipped into the sweet-savory-spicy fish sauce that comes with the dish.
I have no doubt that Quan Hop would still be neck and neck if it had a wider pho selection, but that's not how it is. It excels at other specialties from the region near Hue in central Vietnam, but those have to be overlooked during the Final Pho. Bottom line--it didn't bring enough ammo in this firefight against last year's pho champion.
Advancing to the Final Pho: Pho Thanh Lich!
Pho Thanh Lich, 14500 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 531-5789.
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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: Pho 86