Pho is not cuisine with a capital C. Pho remembers when you fell on your ass in a puddle in the third grade and went crying like a sissy to your grandma, who made it all better with a steaming bowl of pho. Pho is forgiving. Pho is gentle. Pho is love.
That might explain why the Vietnamese beef noodle soup tends to taste best in mom-and-pop shops: they put all their energy into food and ignore service. Ambiance? If you like something that can be hosed down every night in preparation for a union meeting. And while there's nothing wrong with the run-down dump your old man's loved since 1978, Little Saigon has long needed more good-looking pho joints with premium ingredients, a pulsing atmosphere and a beautiful design for a savvy, high-living, Americanized audience.
Enter Quan Hop, which looks like what might happen if an art director started a Vietnamese comfort-food restaurant. A black wall fountain greets you near the entrance. Sunlight floods the main dining room. Stride along the hardwood floor and ocher walls past a mostly 20-ish and 30-ish crowd, and a rigorously designed, pastel-colored menu waits atop your dark wood table.
Despite the thoughtfully decorated room, Quan Hop isn't some trendoid restaurant that ditches homeland flavors in favor of safe, overpriced, watered-down fusion: this place knows its soup. The authenticity begins with a pho restaurant's most crucial component: the broth. Little Saigon is dominated by cafés serving broths that look like dirty dishwater and taste like cloves. But Quan Hop's broth is deeply beefy with the flavors that only meaty slabs of brisket can add. Cooks create the broth by simmering beef bones and sinew in giant pots for hours, ensuring that rich collagen adds body to the broth, and that fats and proteins don't conspire to cloud its beautifully clear complexion. The pho broth is heavy and sweet, like insulin, and just as curative.
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Quan Hop also understands the mystery of noodles. Some Vietnamese restaurants serve their pho noodles as a pasty ball of glop sunk to the bottom of the bowl. The Quan Hop cooks do the cold-water rinse to rehydrate dried noodles, followed by skillful cooking that yields perfectly cooked, separate strands that remain springy in the mouth.
Although Quan Hop offers some appetizers—banh beo, charbroiled pork chops, and steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp, crisp fried shallots and a chile-laced nuoc mam dipping sauce are the best—don't stray too far from the pho. While many Vietnamese restaurants offer multiple varieties of pho, you can get only two here. But what a pair: the $5.75 pho hop assembles different beef textures in a bowl—tender slices of filet mignon, toothy brisket stewed long enough to break down its tough muscle fibers, firm-yet-gelatinous pieces of beef tendon, dense rubbery meatballs and chewy bits of tripe. It's an intense but gentle flavor that wipes away all runny noses and allergies. The other option, pho tai dac biet, ditches the offal and meatballs in favor of pure filet mignon—a $25 value for $6.50. Whatever pho you may slurp, top off the bowl with a jungle of herbs: requisite bean sprouts, spicy royal basil, the cilantro-like leaves of ngo gai and fresh lime slices, with a separate dish of finely sliced shallots and shredded scallions that add another distinct layer of onion bite to the dish.
While hardcore foodies might prefer the more traditional pho joint replete with rude shopkeepers and no receipts, Quan Hop raises expectations for richly flavored and well-executed pho. The young already visit, but even Grandma would dig the place, and then your old man would have to rethink his dive, wouldn't he?
QUAN HOP, 15640 BROOKHURST ST., WESTMINSTER, (714) 689-0555. OPEN DAILY, 9 A.M.-10 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $12-$18, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE. READ PROFESSOR SALT'S BLOG AT PROFESSORSALT.COM.