Sorry to all the animal-lovers out there, but "vegetarian pho" is definitely an oxymoron, so much so that the very association of it with Long Beach's Number Nine has left many avoiding the place despite its convenient location on Fourth Street's Retro Row.
A recent lunch with a vegetarian brought me into the tiny café, and though it is hard to eat hipster-friendly pho when the authentic stuff is right up the street (try Pho Hong Phat on Anaheim Street), Number Nine has more to offer than veggie-friendly Viet options.
As one of the first three establishments in Long Beach to be chosen to host a parklet--a seating area built atop a reclaimed parking spot out front--the restaurant makes the most of its small space. A minimalist-modern interior seats only about 30 people, but with a back patio and the new-ish parklet, that number nearly doubles (and is usually filled up).
A simple menu contains all the Vietnamese staples: spring rolls, pho, bún and bánh mì. There's a vegetarian option for each category, but you can also choose a meat. For the bún and banh mi, it's chicken, shrimp, barbecue pork, lemongrass steak or an all-in-one "melange"; for the pho, there's chicken, rare steak or brisket. As for drinks, there is, of course, Vietnamese iced coffee, as well as various teas and soju cocktails. But with a "noodles and beer" declaration painted on the windows, it's only appropriate to have a tiger ale or a strawberry blonde from the nearby Belmont Brewing Co.
Bún and pho come in oversized square bowls that, if paired with an appetizer, are easily big enough for a two-person lunch. But if you are dining solo (or feeling indecisive), an off-menu $10 lunch combo lets you mix and match a small soup with a half bánh mì for a hearty (though more expensive) midday meal.
The pho broth at Number Nine is not even in the same league as the salty, savory goodness created from assorted meat bits at many of OC's authentic noodle shacks. And good thing--because it's not pretending to be.
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Perfect for when you want to feed those pho cravings without feeling as though you just drank a cow, the restaurant makes low-sodium chicken, beef and pork broth that you can mix and match with any of the meat options (another off-menu secret). If the flavor still isn't enough for the umami-seekers, a plate of herbs, sprouts and spicy sauces can always spruce it up.
With it's often-bearded clientele and a storefront smushed between boutiques along one of Long Beach's most notorious shopping districts, Number Nine would also be at home on East Burnside in Portland or in some quickly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Yet it makes sense in this Little Saigon-adjacent city, where many can't stomach a bowl full of spicy cow parts but are more than willing to embrace the "noodles and beer" concept--emphasis on the beer.