Remember that scene in Casino Royale (the Daniel Craig version, not the 1967 schlockfest), where James Bond gets poisoned during a poker tournament, stumbles back to his hotel room and expunges the venom by drinking a glass of salt water? That's what happened to me last week, albeit with a tastier antidote.
I was suffering from a nasty flu bug incurred after a trip to Philadelphia (note to airplane passengers: never open those bulbous air vents above you). After a return trip spent sneezing, a night of coughing and a day in delirium, I needed salvation, a quick fix. I needed pho.
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PHO CALI beckoned. It's a Know Nothing nightmare, a joint where Latinos outnumber Vietnamese and the only English anyone understands is what's on the menu, translated imperfectly ("nudo" is not the Spanish word for "noodle," as much as it seems right) into three languages. Bucking the latest Little Saigon fad of high-end pho houses, Pho Cali is resolutely dive-y: brusque service, stained floors, spartan decorations, and impossibly cheap-'n'-hefty portions. There were many choices for lunch—broken rice, bún and about a dozen bánh mìs, not to mention a buffet of freshly prepared Vietnamese desserts—but my condition demanded I order their namesake beef noodle soup.
What the waiter placed before me mere minutes after I sat down was the small option, but for once, I'm glad a menu lied. This was beyond huge—I could've placed the empty bowl on my head for a baseball game, and an umpire wouldn't notice. The pho broth was already properly sweet and hearty, but I doctored it with the appropriate garnishes—bean sprouts, jalapeño slices, Thai basil and three leaves of saw-leaf herb, a metallic-tasting plant that's better than it sounds. On top of this, I squirted in streams of the sweet variety of Sriracha.
Even with my severely limited palate, Pho Cali's soup impressed. The cuts of meat were lean but delicious, the noodles long and springy, the broth fragrant and grand. After just a couple of sips, it happened: I was being healed! My skin became clammy with freshly provoked sweat, and snot poured out of my nostrils. Cough, cough—phlegm hacked its way out of my lungs and into my mouth. Pho Cali isn't the best pho in Orange County, but that's like saying Salk's vaccine wasn't the most important medical breakthrough of the 20th century.
Pho Cali, 120 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 531-4556.