You can tell a lot about a Vietnamese eatery after a few spoonfuls of its phở--the delicate noodle staple soup made in a dozen slight variations. If you've had good phở (subtle, potent broth, the right balance of dark chicken meat or thin beef strips and/or tripe, and a garnish blend that includes lime, scallions, cilantro, basil, bean sprouts and sliced, raw jalapeño peppers), then you know how much bad phở there is out there in the world. Bad phở--watery, uncomplicated, forgettable, is easy to make and too easy to find. But good phở--complex, rich, addictive--is infinitely more difficult to track down. When I stopped by 828 Phở recently, a new and one of very few Vietnamese restaurants in Santa Ana, I said a little prayer, and hoped for magic broth.
A perfect, or near perfect, bowl of phở, a friend once told me, should first be judged by the quality of its broth. I've paid close attention ever since and have continually found that a phở's broth unerringly sets the tone for the experience. It doesn't matter how much basil or cilantro you ply your soup with--if the broth is bland and unfeeling (missing subtle hints of free-range meat and coriander, smoky ginger and onion), nothing will rescue the soup.
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When all the elements are in the right place, a near perfect broth will feel like you're in some relative's small homey kitchen indulging in an old family recipe. The phở at 828 is this good. The chicken phở broth is light, aromatic and just a tiny bit smoky. The read meat phởs on the menu are heartier but just as addicting as the chicken phở. Thankfully, the soups aren't overwhelmed with excessive garnish, attesting to the owners' confidence in their sturdy broths. The only disappointment was the discovery that the "dark meat only" chicken phở ga option (which makes the soup infinitely more savory), was once, but no longer, available. Unfortunately, the waiter said, not enough people were ordering the dark meat, "which is how we eat it," and how I learned to love it early on. To save the owners from accumulating spoiled meat, it was cut from the menu.
The phở at 828 isn't the only exceptional dish on the menu. The modern little stop on the corner of First and Main serves 40 other delicious, non-phở items--from plump, mint-laced spring rolls, (vegetarian rolls aren't listed on the menu, so just ask for them), to hearty vermicelli noodle bowls and clay-pot-cooked catfish. A Vietnamese eatery near downtown Santa Ana like this--delicious, consistent and shockingly cheap--was way overdue.
828 Pho, 220 W. First Street, Santa Ana; (714) 568-0338