Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Few Bowls Of Pho. Some Nuoc Beo'd My Socks Off!

Wanted to share a few bowls of Pho I've had in the past months while it was still cold out. Southern California weather can be weird even in December.

Like my Mabo Dofu post, I'll start again by making an umbrella statement of not being an expert.. But I have had enough by now to know my preferences in a bowl, as well as things I look forward to that can make a particular Pho especially enjoyable - i.e. the inclusion of Saw Leaf Herbs in the accompanied plate of veggies and by now for me the almost necessary "fatty broth" - Nuoc Beo. In fact this post may be as much about it as the Pho itself.

The Nuoc Beo is a magical oily concoction that seems to elevate my most ho-hum average Pho encounters into awesome incredibleness of gleaming gold. Suspended within are the Pho's many fat-soluble flavors and it also usually includes a few scallions..

You can read a rather uninformative post of my earlier encounters of it and the Dac Biet I had at Pho Hoa (El Cajon Blvd) here.

If you happened to have read my Wi-Pho'ing @ Cali Baguette Express post, you'd know that I was very curious in visiting Pho Ca Dao because they seemed to be generously supplying the 100 or so feet radius area with Free Wi-Fi. I was very curious if people behind their dark tinted windows were spread out with laptops, extension cords, term papers and wearing headphones like my many normal heights / north park cafe hangouts. Like instead of a giant mug of mocha, it would be a giant bowl of hot Vietnamese Pho!

Nobody with laptops anywhere so I was glad I had left mine in the car, but a somewhat of a neat surprise I did find was this first page of their menu.. A pictorial "Pho for beginners.." Perfect! I've always wondered what the various meats were in my Dac Biets (House Special) which was what I had ordered this day along with the fore mentioned nuoc beo.

This was my first experience with an XL order and I didn't have others to compare with but there was quite a lot of meat (~$6.10). The regular size Dac Biet was crossed out with the price of the extra large portion labeled. In any case I felt all this for $6 was really hard to beat.

What was more immediately noticeable was the strong aroma the soup had than usual. The amount of spices characteristic to Pho were quite high here. The rice noodles weren't over cooked or clumpy which was good as well.

The rare steak was sufficiently tender. I tend to leave mine in the hot broth longer to cook through. The Briskets and other Flanks felt average in that I thought maybe the cuts were a bit on the rough side. I've had softer tendon but this was nice. And no fault to Pho Ca Dao but by now I knew I'm officially over the party cracker confetti-like Tripe. It's easy enough to pick out that I usually don't bother asking without.

Overall I thought it was a great value. The soup's spices were the strongest I had experienced and I would be happy to visit back again for another bowl.

Pho Ca Dao, 5223 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

Saigon is hard to miss when driving down El Cajon Blvd. The sign is very large and the glass windows even larger where it leaves no mystery in letting you see the many patrons dining on any given day (this place looks especially busy during the evenings).

A funny side story to my first visit is that I couldn't find the entrance! Haha classic dorky me. Despite, the large double doors toward the street, the wheel chair access ramp and the site of the large aquarium.. This is NOT the entrance. It is locked and you will embarrassingly attract the attention of diners by tugging on it and making a loud sound. The entrance to Saigon is around the back by their private lot.

The Dac Biet ($willupdate) took some time to come out but when it did it looked like this..

The important soup to me was on the quiet side. Maybe I felt this way because their Pho was the first I had after Pho Ca Dao's.. Not sure but what didn't help was that the server had no clue of the nuoc beo I was asking for. Then when served I also noticed there were no Saw Leaf Herbs in the veggie platter which was a bummer as well.

One redeeming quality though was the quantity of meats. Very generous all around with especially the Brisket. It seemed whenever I thought I ate the last I would find another two slices. There were an abundant amount of noodles as well and it was a big meal.

The experience for this bowl felt very neutral with maybe the quantity being its strongest attribute. I observed that with most the dishes that were being served. They're all very large and plentiful. Like the Chinese Sausage and Egg Spring Rolls I had also had.

Quite a portion and packed with fresh vegetables, it was a lot healthier than it sounded. I had to save the other half to go for dinner as much as it was great with the sweet peanut dipping sauce.

Saigon Restaurant, 4455 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

As of yet no sign of any Pho for me to be had West of the 15 Freeway on El Cajon Blvd. But Pho Van is just there only a block or so East.. I was excited to try them being the closest to me (except for Pho Cali coming up next).

The interior was spotless and for the size airy. I went for the Dac Biet (~$6) again to try a little of everything but when asking for the nuoc beo my mind went blank and so I had to do some hand waving to explain.. They didn't have trouble understanding though.

The menu I had asked to keep was extensive and also with a lot of pretty pictures which was great for an amateur Vietnamese diner like me. At least I knew if my Pho wasn't to my liking I'd still be back to try these other great looking dishes.

When the Pho came I was shocked to see almost an eighth inch of Nuoc Beo Oil already completely covering the surface of the soup. More was given on the side for good measure. Was my hand waving misunderstood as "..and please give me a Whole Lot of it!"?

The amount seemed almost excessive even to my standards but it was a pretty big bowl of Pho and the accompanied veggies looked fantastic which I knew I was going to be having a lot of.

Large Saw Leaf Herbs and a generous amount of Thai Basil and Sprouts, slices of Jalepeno and Lime. The Saw Leaf Herb that I have grown to love is hard to describe but to me has a light chlorophyll-y mild herby taste. While the Basil is a must, the SLH seems to add another veggie flavor component that I started to like and now look forward to when having Pho.

On a side note, I noticed some places like to garnish with Fresh Cilantro like here as with previous Saigon while others do not. I like it either way but I was just curious about this.

Anyhow, the first quarter or so of the soup I thought wasn't bad. It had a decent amount of flavor and of course all the nuoc beo wasn't hurting. But what bothered me some was that the more I got into it, the cloudier and murkier the soup got. About half way through the flavors were so blurred to the point that I didn't care to finish the soup.
Most meats were average to good but some of the Flank and especially the Tendons were too chewy for me to enjoy.

I noticed others having Pho Ga (Chicken Pho) and another with just the rare steak. Again only my first visit to Pho Van and I definitely look forward in coming back in trying more of their dishes while knowing that they serve the Saw Leaf Herb and are generous with the nuoc beo is never a bad thing. :)

Pho Van, 4233 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92105

Pho Cali is located in the "Hooters Mall" in Mission Valley and a place that I just never visited without any good reason. Well you can say the location is awkward not to mention having to park next to (and walk by) Hooters to get to. But now with all anticipation mirroring that of Pho Van I really wanted to check the place out. Pho Cali would be the closest Pho destination to where I lived.

Again very nice, clean and airy with courteous servers. As much I as enjoy the Dac Biet when the various meats are prepared well, I decided this day to order the Rare Steak and Crispy Flank (#43) instead. Regular size, $5.99. The large is a dollar more.

The amount of free veggie accompaniments were quite sparse but all was fresh.

No Saw Leaf Herb though but they did serve nuoc beo. I admit that I'm addicted to this stuff now.

I always try the soup straight as served first. It was on the light side similar to maybe Saigon. But after a few large spoonfuls of nuoc beo..

All was good. Pho Cali proved to be another viable option for me when in the mood for a bowl of Pho.

Pho Cali, 1400 Camino de la Reina #104, San Diego, CA 92108

Thanksgiving Day I wasn't going to take any chances and headed to my personal favorite Pho spot Pho Hoa off El Cajon Blvd. The place with the smiling cow sign.
If you decide to head down here, Pho is all they serve so be sure that's what you're in the mood for. Specialization has its benefits though where at least for my taste, Pho Hoa time and time delivers a mighty yummy bowl.

I ordered a regular size order with the #11 Brisket and Flank ($5.75). Of course with some nuoc beo. Looked like this when arrived..

But with some addition of these..

It transforms into a super model beauty like this..

I forgot about the Saw Leaf Herb for the "photo shoot" but I had it with later.
The soup was a tad on the lighter side this day but still expectedly balanced with good depth and spiced to my liking. It's always surprising to see the amount of flavor such a clear broth can have.

And though just a regular portion, they give you A Lot of noodles. I often see very petite older Vietnamese women order up a large and I just don't know how they're able to finish it like they do..

The "well cooked" brisket was great, trimmed lean and without any chewy bits and along with the flank I would occasionally dip in some sweet hoisin sauce for a change of pace. Pho Hoa's meats seem to be sliced thinner than others and I wonder if that's part why I find them more tender and palatable.

This day skies were cloudy, drizzly and chilly. A perfect day for a great bowl of Pho and to be thankful for it.

Pho Hoa, 4717 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

My first experience with Pho T Cali was their Pho Ga.

It was good but I didn't know at the time their Chicken Pho was paired with a much lighter Chicken based broth which wasn't what I was expecting. So I had to come back for another round but this time their Pho Bo (beef) Dac Biet - $5.90.

While my mission was in trying the Pho so to help complete this post, my true craving this day was for some Grilled Pork. This dish had been taunting me everywhere from menu photos to the sight of waiters delivering them to nearby tables. So my solution was to simply order a side of it which they had let me ($3). The nuoc beo came later and is not pictured.

Just a note that I only use the sweet hoisin on the side to occasionally dip leaner meats into and I never put it into my soup. But this day I had something else in mind. Why not the grilled pork?!

I love my poached chicken, rare steaks and simmered beef meat balls, but now and then I would feel the bowl could really use the taste of something.. charred?

If the nuoc beo turned my Pho into an Animal.. The addition of a mound of grilled pork turned it into a Beast! I was on a roll and with the ad hoc sprinkle of fine ground pepper..

For me the roasty flavors of the grill char from the pork gave the bowl even greater depth and while I completely understand this may go against some Pho purists, this meal turned out to be one of the most exciting meals I've had in a long while and a great cap to the week.

Pho T Cali, 7351 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, San Diego, CA 92111

The last two are Pho I had in mall food courts. I always felt "Mall Pho" had their place because I never know when a Pho craving can hit.

Saigon Noodles in the UTC Westfield Mall food court is my quickest access to a bowl of Pho at least from work. My first Pho I had here was I think called the "Spicy Beef Satay," ~$7.45. Admittedly high for what you get but so are soft drinks at the movies (I try to reason) and the other options were not appetizing to me the day.

Only mildly spicy but not bad if not out of the ordinary. The egg rolls are fried to order and crispy (but also priced a bit on the high side). This was quite a while back so I felt I needed a revisit. Plus I wondered if they would serve me nuoc beo if I asked.. Would they? After all, isn't the stuff simply skimmed from the top of a giant soup caldron? (or so I imagine..)

Never hurts to ask because they did! Though not served separately and pre-ladled into the soup, it was free of charge. I had the Rare Beef (~$7.40) with extra beef meatballs (+$1).

Came already garnished as usual with Thai Basil, chopped scallions and fresh Cilantro (no sprouts though or the saw leaf herb for that matter).

The almighty nuoc beo.. I think I've said enough.

By the time tax was included, this bowl of Pho was $9.04. Still ultimately convenience wins me over and I have 40 mins left on my lunch break to run whatever errands I need to.

Saigon Noodles, 4545 La Jolla Village Dr, San Diego, CA 92122 (in the UTC Wesfield Mall food court)

Pho Station is also relatively close by located in the Sorrento Valley food court. My first Pho here was with the beef meatballs ($6.41).

The veggies were provided in a baggie to ease prep of to-go orders. Just the basics with Basil, Bean Sprouts and slices of Jalepeno and Lime.

All I can remember about the soup was that it was a careful study of how light one can be while still retaining recognizability as Vietnamese Pho. If I recognizabilitied anything, it was that when you're in the mood for Pho, a so-so bowl is better than not having one at all and it fared decent for this day (feeling a bit under the weather). Dipping the meatballs in some of the hoisin and later adding some hot chili paste also helped.

Would Pho Station generously provide you with a side of Nuoc Beo if you asked? You bet!

"Let me go make you some.." was the answer from the kind gentleman, and was free of charge of course. Was enough to feed a small family.
The special here is not called the Dac Biet but the Chef's Choice Pho ($6.73). Comes with medium-well slices of steak, tripe and tendons.

The beef was fairly fatty but not chewy while tendons were also surprisingly soft. I even had a few bites of the tripe. The grilled pork in the background was my attempt to relive the great success I had at Pho T Cali. This though was more something used in their Banh Mi and premade. But for only $2 wasn't a bad experiment, just unnecessary with the meats in the Chef's Choice and nuoc beo.

Pho Station, 9450 Scranton Rd, San Diego, CA 92121

Maybe a final conclusion of sorts.. as much as I try to give the most accurate descriptions of all that I had, depending on any given day soups from the same restaurant can be heartier or lighter and meat toppings less or more tender.. So I never really know what my next bowl of Pho may exactly be like.

But chances are that it would be with a generous drizzle of nuoc beo and maybe even some grilled pork.. or even.. *imagination running* :)


Brian said...

Looks great. Throwing in the fresh herbs was always the best part of Pho for me.

Dennis K. said...

Hi Brian! So it seems you make time for some Pho now and then? ;)
The fresh herbs and veggies are definitely a must for me as well!