Long Beach doesn't have OC's Little Siagon, or even many Vietnamese people for that matter. But we are blessed enough to have Pho Hong Phat–a recently-upgraded hole-in-the-wall on the eastern edge of Cambodia Town that annihilates the dozen or so (mostly Thai) establishments in the city that actually make the hearty Viet soup.
That's because Pho Hong Phat's superiority lies not in a deluge of Asian-food options, but in a small selection of beef pho choices that takes the whole “do one thing and do it well” business philosophy to new heights.
As soon as you walk into Pho Hong Phat's corner unit on Anaheim Street, a middle-aged Vietnamese man (the owner?) silently acknowledges your presence by pointing you the nearest empty table. If he wants to get fancy, he'll count how many people came in with you and hold up the same number fingers as if to ask, “Table for four?” Just nod and let him point you to the nearest empty.
The menu is printed on a half-letter paper in a plastic stand on each table and is stupid simple, even for other pho-only places. All you have to do is pick your bowl size (small through x-large) and decide what combination of beef cuts and cook temperatures you want, the possible permutations of which are on a numbered list that only goes to 17. Chicken and shrimp options were added last time the menu was reprinted, but why bother with the afterthoughts?
I've bounced around numbers over the years, but usually get a “medium number three”–rare steak and well-done flank. The food takes less than a minute to come out (literally–I have never received my iced coffee before my food) and then, depending on my mood, I'll load it up with Thai basil and sprouts and some combination of sweet and spicy sauces from each table's plastic tray of condiment goodies.
On my most recent trip, I ventured deep into the spicy zone and dropped a full squeeze of the house chili paste (which looks surprisingly like finely ground chorizo plus its grease) into my bowl. Once mixed with the savory broth, the spice came on slowly, luring me with a warm sweetness and then moving into lip-stinging heat that could only be remedied by shoveling more noodles and thinly cut meat into my mouth. Which is fine since no matter how hungry I am, there is always more in the bowl than I will ever eat.
When you're ready to leave, just go up to the counter and pay (cash!). And even though it feels completely awkward to throw dollar bills into a trash can, tips for the heartiest 15-minute lunch in Long Beach can be placed in the bagged-and-covered waste bin to the left of the register.
Pho Hong Phat, 3243 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 498-3754.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.