Welcome to OC Weekly's Final Pho. Sixteen pho shops chosen from the more than 100 in the county; four critics who know what the pho makes a good bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. The chosen 16 will face off in each of our brackets, two by two. The next match-up has Edwin revisiting the upscale branch of our bracket.
Brodard Chateau and S Vietnamese Fine Dining aren't necessarily pho joints as they are restaurants that serve Vietnamese and Vietnamese-inflected Western food. Of course, with this comes the bling you'd expect from places that serve Vietnamese-inflected Western food.
S Fine Vietnamese is gorgeous, despite being in the parking lot of Westminster Mall, one of the least traversed and underrated shopping centers in OC. There's a grand piano. A back-lit green wall emulates the lushness of rice paddies. Entrées average in the $25 range. The seared salmon with spinach and mushroom, by the way, is excellent.
Meanwhile, Brodard Chateau takes residence in a stately Victorian-style manor. Strategically lit art hang on the walls, rows of glimmering bottles line a spotless bar, and everywhere is a romantic mood conducive to first dates. The day I visited, there were as many non-Vietnamese faces as there were Vietnamese ones. As one would expect, it charged higher prices for its lauded nem nuong roll than its older sister, the well-regarded Brodard. Furthermore, it cuts them up and stands them upright, destined to the fate of any other tubular and spring-roll-like food served at every restaurant in this bracket. Also, Brodard's secret dipping sauce is served in thimbles instead of in soup bowls.
But Brodard Chateau immediately distinguishes itself in another way from the original: It serves pho. The older Brodard has positioned itself as the epochal “Nem Nuong Restaurant,” its reputation built upon those aforementioned spring rolls. The reason it doesn't do pho is the same reason a com tam or banh mi specialist wouldn't do pho: it doesn't need to. But judging by Brodard Chateau's $8.95 bowl, I wished the original did. Brodard Chateau's pho overachieves.
Not only did the plate of roughage contain saw-leaf herb the Vietnamese called ngo gai–a staple of those OG pho shops Gustavo, Dave and Shuji profiled this week–but it also included a few sticks of buttered baguette toast. And in the category of the $9 pho, the house-special beef pho shows you where your money went. The investment yields dividends in meat. Among the tender raw slices of the rare tenderloin called tai, there's fat-rimmed brisket, the gelatin-flecked flank steak, spring-loaded meatballs, even–wait for it–tripe!
The noodles were balled up in a tight wad until I drove my chopsticks into them and shook them awake. This and the almost ineffective soup become also-rans when one considers the bevy of bovine delights. The fact that there was still meat to eat after I finished the broth and the noodles speaks to the quantity they've managed to cram in the bowl. It was a veritable mosh pit of beef.
S Vietnamese Fine Dining's $8 pho had its work cut out for it And immediately it scored a point with the broth. This was a soup that the Brodard Chateau was not–sweetly meaty, smooth on the slurp and almost murky in appearance. I had my date taste it to compare it to Brodard Chateau's brew, and she confirmed what I knew to be true. “This one's much better; the other one was bland.”
However, despite this and the presence of the saw-tooth herb, the bowl faltered with its noodles and, notably, with the meat. But first the noodles: They weren't just clumped and stuck to the bottom of the bowl; they were almost immovable. It took significant effort to loosen them up so that I wasn't picking up a boulder of noodles instead of strands. And even then, some of them still stuck together. But it was the beef that ultimately disappointed. When compared to Brodard Chateau's melting rare steak, S Vietnamese's tai were chewy and sapped of flavor. The brisket were no different, cut into thick stew-like hunks instead of the usual slices.
Winner: Brodard Chateau, which now moves up to Round 2.
S Vietnamese Fine Dining, 545 Westminster Mall, Westminster, (714) 898-5092.
Brodard Chateau, 9100 Trask Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 899-8273.
PREVIOUS ROUND 1 WINNERS:
Pho Dakao vs. Kim Loan: Pho Dakao
AnQi vs. Benley: Benley
Pho Thanh Lich vs. Pho Vinh Ky 2: Pho Thanh Lich
Pho Kimmy vs. Pho Quang Trung: Pho Quang Trung
Pho Hien Vuong vs. Pho Nguyen Hue: Pho Nguyen Hue