It was during my third visit to the second and newest location of Sawleaf that I noticed I was the only Asian person in a room of people slurping bowls of pho. Next to me, there was a twentysomething blonde in yoga clothes who was carefully plucking basil leaves. Next to her, her boyfriend had squeezed zigzags of Sriracha over his bowl and was now diving in with chopsticks. At another table, two suburban moms with strollers had just finished their chicken pho, leaving behind crumpled napkins and emptied bowls. I realized then what I’d witnessed was pho joining the ranks of pizza and tacos—a dish that has ceased to be ethnic and become just food.
My epiphany had as much to do with where Sawleaf was located as who ate there. Next door was a Pieology Pizzeria and a Corner Bakery; across the courtyard, an Edwards Cinema had just let out a matinee of Boss Baby. This was as mainstream a venue as you can get in Donald Bren’s Irvine Co. fantasia. It’s also worth mentioning that a few years ago, Jerry’s Dogs stood at the exact spot where Sawleaf now stands. Though I still miss Jerry’s, it’s an encouraging sign for the assimilation of Vietnamese food that pho has replaced hot dogs. It’s not yet reached the ubiquity of Panda Express, but it’s a good start.
Sawleaf seems to be aware of this fact, so it’s started with just the basics. It offers only three main dishes arranged by its perceived familiarity to the non-Vietnamese. The pho is listed first, then the bánh mì, and finally, the bún, a cold noodle salad doused with a dressing made of fish sauce. To its credit, Sawleaf doesn’t attempt to follow the build-your-own Chipotle model to make its dishes more accessible to the general audience. The only decision I had to make was the protein: beef, chicken or tofu.
But I ordered here as I would at any modern fast-casual, while squinting at the menu marquee, verifying payment on a computer screen and getting a number. I then sat in a chic room that’s far removed from the life-sized Vietnamese-street-food scene that covered the walls. Yet, on every table, there’s the usual trinity of Huy Fong’s Sriracha, hoisin sauce and chile paste. But since Sawleaf had a business plan behind each detail, it featured a few corporate-style touches. If you’re taking your pho to-go, Sawleaf’s young staff (no one there looks older than 30) package it neatly in cute, specially designed carriers, with the broth separated from the noodles.
Also, because of the name, the side plate of pho garnish came with not only bean sprouts, basil leaves and lime, but also sawleaf, the frilly, feather-shaped herb that I’ve not seen anywhere outside of Little Saigon. Granted, the restaurant supplied exactly one leaf per plate, but hey, it’s there.
As far as the pho itself, I preferred the chicken over the beef. The broth was as clean and comforting as chicken soup gets, while the bird was thinly sliced and tenderer than breast meat has any business being. Everyone starts with the beef pho, though, and it spoke to how long the broth was simmered that my refrigerated leftovers solidified to Jell-O the next morning.
It would be unfair to compare any of the prices here to what they cost in Little Saigon. This is especially true of Sawleaf’s bánh mì, which ticks close to $10 for the pork belly sandwich on permanent special. It helps to know that this is bánh mì for the Quiznos set. There is no headcheese and no pâté. And there’s a tendency for the foot-long baguettes to lose their top-crust crackle when you opt for takeout. When I bit into one that I took home, I realized it attained the same soft, moist consistency of the Jersey Mike’s Philly cheesesteak I ate the week before. By contrast, the in-store bánh mì still possessed a toasty crunch, which, in turn, only heightened the flavor of the grilled chicken perfumed in lemongrass.
The beef bún, I found, was good either eat-in or takeout. It was refreshing and enough for two, with plenty of meat, wispy noodles and crisp lettuce, plus two diminutive egg rolls that would’ve otherwise cost me an extra $6 to try. One night, I saw a Latino man who ordered the bún timidly taking a taste-test of the crispy fried shallots that came on the side. After doing so, he dumped the entire contents into his bowl, then proceeded to dig in. This, I thought, was how all ethnic foods become American: one convert at a time.
Sawleaf, 13786 Jamboree Rd., Ste. C, Irvine, (714) 417-9028; www.sawleaf.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dishes, $8.50-$10.95.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.