This Labor Day weekend was spent in San Francisco at a new festival called Slow Food Nation, a celebration of all foodstuffs local, organic and damn good. It’s part of the larger Slow Food movement, which calls for eaters to maintain local gourmand traditions in the face of corporate coldness, treat animals humanely and offer amazing cuisine. A few local restaurants adhere to the philosophy—I’m thinking Old Vine Cafe, Avanti Cafe and Onotria in Costa Mesa, and Huntington Beach’s Slowfish—but none of them offers the immediate freshness of the chicken pho at PHO DAKAO. The plump chunks of hen bobbing in your massive bowl were recently slaughtered and transported from Dakao Poultry in Midway City, just a couple of miles away.
Wait a minute, the less-OC-assimilated among you might think—chicken pho? Isn’t pho created from a complex stew of long-simmered beef bones, then topped with beef and the occasional tripe and tendon? You’re right to wonder: Beef by far remains the most popular version of the soup in Little Saigon, and the majority of restaurants offer the chicken variety as an afterthought. But at Pho Dakao, cluckers are king (or queen, as it were)—they offer eight types of chicken pho, from some containing giblets, tripe and other offal to straightforward chicken soup that Red Staters would slurp up if they didn’t know it came from the hands of a Vietnamese.
Chicken pho is a different beast from its beef cousin. Whereas the latter is all about nuance, the former is an edible hug, a soothing, uncomplicated bowl as only chicken soup can offer. Instead of meat shavings, there are large chicken chunks. The broth is light, nourishing, smooth to the tongue and never laden with grease spots that burn. Nevertheless, I still prefer beef pho, but Pho Dakao beats the county’s best Vietnamese beef soup any day.
It’s the fresh chicken: all white meat, with no gristle or nerve endings and only the occasional dark spot. The taste is immediate—slightly, naturally sweet, no dryness or gross chewiness. Combine it with soft noodles and the traditional jungle of herbs tossed into any pho, and you have as great a soup as you’ll find, in a massive bowl for the ridiculously affordable price of $5. And remember to dunk the chicken into a dipping sauce I had never experienced—sweet but peppery yet not quite sweet-and-sour. It’s new to me, but I’m sure Vietnamese readers will laugh off my naivete about this condiment the way I do when gabachos discover the wonders of Cholula Hot Sauce.
Pho Dakao, 15532 Ward St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2009.