For years after moving to Long Beach, I stayed away from Pho America. It sounds silly now, but no matter how much I was craving delicious beef broth, I just couldn't bring myself to walk inside a place that I was convinced by its very mention of America had to be bastardizing the integrity what it sought to sell.
Stupid me, of course, judging a perfectly good restaurant by its unfortunate name; because as I recently discovered (thanks to a friend's hearty recommendation for their cost-efficient lunch specials), there is little American influence and more than just pho on the menu at this all-around Vietnamese gem.
Instead of Pho Hong Phat's staunch soup-only policy or Number Nine's hipster-friendly vegetarian selections, Pho America is far more middle ground, sitting on the edge of Long Beach's Wrigley neighborhood like a Little Saigon sit-down where fans of more-approachable Vietnamese dishes like pan-fried noodles and shrimp fried rice can eat their fill alongside traditionalists gobbling bowls of pho or bún.
During dinner, most of the individual menu items average around $7 (the filet mignon will run you a steep $9), but its better to arrive early because before 3 p.m. every day, cheap lunch specials offer a chance for more variety by catering to an all-inclusive mix-and-match mentality.
The menu's front page lists off five different combos that range in price from $7 to $8 and pair everything from spring rolls to chicken bún to pork banh mi with a side of pho as well as a soda and a daily dessert. Pick your poison quickly as the servers re-appear, notepads in hand, within seconds of distributing menus. And once you order, the meal begins to arrive just as promptly.
First to be delivered is the pho, all rice noodles and green onions floating with thin slices of steak in a savory liquid that begs to be slurped. The "mini" bowl that accompanies combos #2 through #5 is only cup-of-soup sized (not even big enough to stuff with sprouts or basil leaves), however it's the right amount of appetizer to satisfy cold-weather pho cravings before the main course shows up a minute and a half later.
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Pho America's bún are the typical oversized salads of dry vermicelli noodles topped with chunky, fatty meat skewers, but it's the pork banh mi (listed as the "pork sandwich" under combo #4) that stands out most here. Enough to serve two, the baguette comes loaded with fresh-cut jalepenos, greens and a base of flavor-punched pig slices, mayo and cheese like a crunchy, melty Vietnamese Philly cheesesteak.
Judging it less on its inaccurate name than for its central location, low prices and fast service ideal for 30-minute lunches, Pho America may not be worth a drive past Westminster, but its lunchtime goodies are all big portions of solid Vietnamese munchies hard found in pho-starved Long Beach.
Pho America, 1826 Pacific Ave., Long Beach, (562) 218-0204, phoamerica.com