Dueling Dishes: Fish Pho

When an ethnic restaurant specializes in a particular thing–say, a Cantonese barbecue restaurant–you'll know the specialty of the house because it's proudly displayed the moment you set food inside. In the example of that Cantonese-roasted-meats specialist, they'll have a display case with a roasted pig hanging inside, its golden-brown skin skillfully crisped like chicharrĂ³n.

Or they might broadcast the specialty on a sign outside. So when you see a neon sign advertising pho ca as prominently garish as one that reads, “Live Nude Girls,” you should probably get that, even if you don't know your pho ca from pho ga or pho bo.

The reason? Fish pho is something of an uncommon specialty. This week, we try two versions: at Pho Vie in Westminster and at Pho Vinh Ky II in Garden Grove.

Pho Vinh Ky II shares a nondescript strip mall with a Van's Bakery location and Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie. More important, it's across the street from two other great pho shops–Pho Thanh Lich and Pho 79–so they're running with the big dogs on the block.

A sure sign they're not messing around is the plate of herbs placed on your table the moment you sit. It's taken for granted here that you'll be ordering a bowl of pho, and you won't be getting the gabacho version of the herb plate, either. A legit pho shop in Little Saigon that doesn't gabacho the non-Viet customers gives you rau ram, the sawtoothed herb also known as culantro and not just the more common cilantro.

Pho Vinh Ky II starts with beef broth in all of its pho dishes, uses thin rice noodles, and gives you lots of mild-flavored, boneless pieces of filet in the $5.50 “small” bowl. What kind of fish? The place calls it catfish, but it's basa, an Southeast Asian catfish that's cleaner-tasting than American catfish. Slices of raw onion and fresh cilantro top the soup.

The flavor of the soup? Subtly sweet and spiked with star anise and a little bit of clove.

Pho Vie's version is actually very similar. So similar in fact, that you'd be hard-pressed to see the difference in these two photos. The noodles here are a little wider, like linguine rather than capellini. From a textural standpoint, these stay a firm a little longer than the standard thin strand of rice noodles, if you tend to eat at a snail's pace. Pho Vie also uses a beef broth soup, and chunks of perfectly cooked basa.

This duel's close because the differences are minute. The spices in the soups are a matter of personal preference: some will like a purer, single-note beef broth, while others prefer the spike of star anise and clove. For me, the plate of herbs at Vinh Ky II was a little bit fresher and more generous, and a place that's picky about freshness gets my vote. This pho photo-finish goes to Pho Vin Ky II.

Pho Vie, 15440 Beach Blvd., Ste. 128 Westminster, (714) 899-8883.
Pho Vin Ky II, 14390 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-4965

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