Pho Crystal Noodle House: Pho for Mexicans
After more than a decade of reviewing restaurants in Orange County, I can unequivocally state this: After the Vietnamese, the group that best loves pho is Mexicans. I've collectively seen more Mexis at pho joints over the years than gabachos or any other group of Asians, so much so I don't even blink anymore when I see a family slurping down dinner while transfixed by a Paris By Night production or a group of paisason break from construction specifying extra tendon but no tripe. Mexicans love pho so much there's even a genre of pho dives—Pho Cali and Pho Hoa Binh most famous among them—at which the menu is printed in Spanish and Vietnamese, with English as an afterthought, because the customers speak good-enough Vietnamese and the waiters speak good-enough Spanish. 'Murica!
Pho Crystal Noodle House in SanTana isn't that geared toward Mexicans: There are no Spanish translations or the marketing of goi cuon as "taquitos" as I've seen in other Vietnamese restaurants near barrios. But you're more likely to see a chola in a Valley High sweat shirt than you are Vietnamese, as the dive is located next to apartment complexes and a Laundromat, meaning the stream of working-class wabs never stops. Don't think the soup is somehow watered down or modified even a bit for Mexicans—what Crystal Noodle House serves is straightforward pho, all about the earthy broth and generous portions of meat. The beef pho is better than the chicken (which is good, but not Pho Dakao good); the hu tieu is a barnyard feast filled with shrimp and Chinese pork barbecue and a big ol' piece of fried chicken to round everything off. Other rice and noodle dishes exist—but all customers, whether the mostly Mexi to the smattering of gabachos and Viets who do stop by, spoon through their soups. And regardless of order, everything ends with a complimentary cup of che, the soup dessert filled with tapioca balls—which, incidentally enough, Mexicans also love. It'd be nice if there were some Tapatío next to the Sriracha, or more herbs than basil leaves to throw in the pho, but Pho Crystal House's namesake soup can compete with the upper third of Little Saigon.
So why the Mexican love affair with pho? You're going to have to dig up my decade-old series comparing Vietnamese and Mexican food for a full answer. But Mexicans, just as with all ethnic groups, seek out great meals—the Reconquista ain't always rocket science, you know?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.