After about a collective 30 or so bowls of pho consumed over three weeks in our Final Pho tournament, us wackos over at our Stick a Fork In It food blog have finally determined the best pho in Orange County: the place we picked as OC's best pho last year, Pho Thanh Lich. I don't want to say it was a blowout—there were some epic battles in Thanh Lich's journey toward its ultimately easy win in the Final Pho championship (go online for the details!)—but no Vietnamese restaurant can match its version right now, in cost, taste, broth, beef, specials. Everything.
Let's start with the soup's essential scaffold, the broth. Thanh Lich's version is brown with the drippings of beef, fragrant with star anise, teasing with cinnamon. The cuts—whether smoky brisket, fatty tendon or luscious tripe—taste as if they were just shaved off a steer. As these bits cook in the boiling soup, the flavor becomes even more concentrated—and that's before the inclusion of lime, jalapeños, Thai basil, sharp ngo gai, and all the other herbs that ratchet the broth from extraordinary to transcendent.
And that beef! Each brisket slice has a length of fat as thick and pale as the whitewalls on a Corvette; each tendon begs a slurp, each tripe slice an extra chew. Even their chicken pho, thrown on the menu as an afterthought, can give that genre's local kings, Pho Dakao and Pho Quang Trung, a great matchup.
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But Thanh Lich's sixth man is actually its true star: duck soup, a huge drumstick in the center topped by bamboo shoots and vermicelli noodles. On the side are roasted duck slices; you're not supposed to throw them in the soup but rather dunk them into a bowl of electric fish sauce. It's a funky, heaping weekend special that only a couple of customers order because the pho is so damn good—and it's not even the best thing about the restaurant!
Even better than the pho, even better than the Christmas wreaths that stay up year-round, the helpful color graphics on the walls advertising specials, the whitewashed bricks that hint at its diner past in Thanh Lich's building and the complimentary cup of che that looks like cream of potato soup but is a spectacular custard-esque dessert, is the happy hour—not for alcohol, but for pho. From 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day, you can order Orange County's best pho for an outrageous $2.99—same stunning broth, same toothsome cuts. People: Bow before your pho king-god, and don't forget the napkins.
This column appeared in print as "What a Phonament!"