Pho Song Hai's Drip In Time
Make sure to take a book when you visit Pho Song Hai—may I suggest The Iliad or something similarly hefty? Because the wait will be long—like, really long. This is Little Saigon's current hot spot for pho, so lines are inevitable, and downtime here means each of the 12 tables in the dive is filled. And even when you finally get the chance to sit down, the wait to merely place your order can stretch to 10 or 15 minutes—and even after you place it, it'll take a good 15 to 20 minutes to get your bowl of chicken pho. It's not that the waitstaff is incompetent, or even that the restaurant is slammed (although it's definitely the latter); it's just that Pho Song Hai's signature dish takes time, which is necessary to indulge in the best chicken pho in Orange County not made at Pho Dakao.
In one very particular way, however, Pho Song Hai wins OC's pho gá wars. It prepares its chicken Hai Nam style, meaning the bird is poached, then refrigerated, then served cold on a plate separate from the pho, skin and bone and all. The skin turns into jellied layers of fat; the flesh is shockingly milky, smooth and wonderful. It comes with a ginger nuoc mam so thick it's almost like applesauce, reeking and electric. That's house-made, along with a hot sauce I've never seen anywhere else in Little Saigon: made from Thai bird peppers, the concoction is orange-red, slightly oily and has a deceptive burn that accentuates the ginger nuoc mam to make the best tag team since the Hart Foundation.
And then you get to the actual pho: noodles soft and steaming, broth redolent of schmaltz, the herb plate ready to add its sweetness, spiciness and astringency. Pho Song Hai's default plate is a full chicken breast, but most tables also order a drumstick, the better to gnaw on its chilly brilliance; more adventurous palates also order a side of chicken gizzards and liver, earthy and fabulous. You can also order the Hai Nam chicken with rice, which is cooked in the bird's broth. But Song Hai's chicken pho is so fabulous, so worth waiting a minimum of half an hour only to slurp it up in 10 minutes that not ordering it is akin to reading the Iliad but quitting before the Trojan Horse.
And to wash the pho down? Cafe sua da, of course. It's brewed from an impromptu French drip filter, a huge thing that slowly empties into a plastic pitcher; the stuff is so powerful and will get you so wired that time becomes a mere speck in the big bowl of pho that is the universe.
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