It is unconscionable that in the year-plus we've been doing these Dueling Dishes segments, we haven't yet touched on the single most defining dish of the single most defining cuisine of Orange County.
I'm talking, of course, about Vietnamese food in general, and phở in particular. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of places to get the soul food of Vietnam; it's available even in places without noticeable Vietnamese minorities, and there are so many phở shops in Little Saigon that there is effectively a price ceiling on the dish.
A survey of the Chowhound boards yields the crown of best phở bò (beef phở) either to Phở 79 or to Phở Thanh Lịch, which sit catercorner from each other at Brookhurst and Hazard Streets on the border of Westminster and Garden Grove.
At each place, I ordered phở tái chín nạm, as the dish most likely to be ordered by người tây (Westerners) without a taste for tendon or tripe. $6 at either place gets you a bowl of broth with the traditional rice noodles, rare filet mignon, well-done flank and beef brisket.
Phở Thanh Lịch's broth had been sitting for a long time by the time I got there; phở broth is made overnight, so the phở eaten for breakfast is much lighter than phở eaten for dinner. It was quite salty after the al dente noodles were finished, and there was a great deal of it. The meat was excellent. You can get your bò tái (rare filet mignon) on the side for an upcharge of 50 cents, and it's worth it; you get eight slices to dunk in your hot broth and cook to your liking. Well-done flank was tender but not noteworthy. What was outstanding, and a change in the recipe from years past, is the brisket; huge, thick pieces of brisket with fat on the outside that practically dissolved in the mouth. A Jewish grandmother would approve of this brisket.
Phở 79's broth was much lighter at first; as I got to the bottom of the bowl and finished the noodles (which were quite tender), it became saltier and saltier, until I had to leave the remainder. The brisket was nicely cut, two pieces of cut-against-the-grain beef tied together with a tile of tender fat. The well-done flank was a little bit tough; it had to be chewed into submission a whole piece at a time. The rare filet mignon, though appetizing when the bowl arrived, was overcooked by the time I finished doctoring my soup with the salad plate.
Both places get props for having ngò gai, the long, sawtooth-leaf herb with the pungent cilantro flavor, on their salad plates, and Phở Thanh Lịch gets an extra mention for the dish of ground-to-order black pepper provided; you mix a little bit of lime juice into it to make a paste, then dip your meat in the paste, put it in the spoon, and add a little broth. Perfection.
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While I liked the broth better at Phở 79, the quality of meat at Phở Thanh Lịch was so far superior that this week's Dueling Dishes crown must go to Phở Thanh Lịch.
Phở Thanh Lịch, 14500 Brookhurst St., Westminster; (714) 531-5789; no website.
Phở 79, 9941 Hazard Ave., Garden Grove; (714) 531-2490; no website.