Here we are: the semifinals; the Final Pho. Sixteen of Orange County's finest pho shops have been whittled down to four. The winner of today's matchup will face the winner of the Pho Thanh Lich vs. Pho Quang Trung match on Friday in the championship to declare the finest (phoniest?) pho in Orange County.
It took several visits to decide on the winner of this round. Shuji and I argued back and forth via e-mail for days; major legislation has passed Congress without the amount of debate we put in over two bowls of noodle soup.
Both of us were underwhelmed by the flavor of Pho Nguyen Hue's chicken broth; it was too light and had an aftertaste reminiscent of Knorr. The chicken was expertly shredded, and the leg meat was well-cooked, but the majority of the bowl was chicken breast, woken up nicely by the tart dipping sauce. The noodles were slightly overdone, but at least a few had the characteristic snap. The beef broth was better, but lacked panache and had far too much star anise in it. It was exactly what you would find at any pho shop--Pho Nguyen Hue's is a standard bowl of pho; not outstanding, not terrible, but exactly middle-of-the-road. It's Northern-style pho, as well--Hanoi-style--and the Northern Vietnamese tend to make simpler pho; the Southerners are the ones so fond of throwing in a shop's worth of spices.
Brodard Chateau's broths had that Southern soul. The chicken broth had a deep flavor and no greasy profile; the beef broth had just enough gelatin from the bones to coat the tongue nicely, and enough spices to be assertive without being domineering or any one spice overwhelming the bowl. The noodles were overcooked and mushy, however; one one visit, I had to wait 35 minutes after I ordered for my pho to come out, by which point the rare beef was practically jerky.
The presentation at Brodard Chateau, of course, was excellent, with pesto-rubbed slices of baguette toast to dip in the broth, perky basil (but different types of basil on two separate visits) and sawleaf herb, the freshest sprouts, and a pre-made dipping bowl of hoisin and sriracha sauce. One major sin--easily corrected with a word to the staff--is that chicken pho comes with the same setup, rather than with the sweet, gingery dipping sauce that is the hallmark of Brodard Chateau and served with every (practically mandatory) order of their nem nuong cuon.
Could we award a trip to the championship to a $9 bowl of pho? Doesn't the value proposition need to be taken into account?
Well, yes... and no. A small bowl of pho at Pho Nguyen Hue is $4.25, one of the best values in Little Saigon. It's a worthy destination in its own right, and would stack up nicely against any pho shop in Los Angeles (Did you hear that, LA Weekly? That's the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down.) We are after the best pho, not the best-value pho, and Shuji summed it up beautifully when he said that Pho Nguyen Hue was the Lady Antebellum of pho. Based solely on the flavor, and recognizing that the bracket system has eliminated worthier and more consistently good bowls of pho, we have chosen:
WINNER, AND ADVANCING TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP: Brodard Chateau.
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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