Is there anything more annoying than the friend who corrects your pronunciation of pho, insisting that you call the Vietnamese beef noodle soup "fuh" instead of "foe" – that girl who rolls her eyes at the idea of a restaurant called "9021Pho?" Perhaps not. But when the weather is damp, the radio news guys talk about mudslides and you feel like crawling back into bed, there may be no better restorative than a steaming bowl of pho, even when it requires a 40-minute drive.
Pho 79. If you look in the window of the original Pho 79 in Little Saigon, you can probably still see a review I wrote back in the Reagan administration; a review old enough to run for the House of Representatives. Pho 79 was the first great pho restaurant in California, and the pho dac biet, beef noodle soup with a bit of everything and a big hit of star anise, hasn’t really changed since then. It’s one of the most reliable phos in town. It was only recently though that I discovered the pho thit nuong with Vietnamese grilled pork and broth the color of black coffee. Are the flavors of the pork pho a little muddied, almost gravy-like? Perhaps. But with a squirt of lime and a few shreds of torn basil, it is better than all right. 29 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra, (626) 289-0239; 9200 Bolsa Ave. (in the Asian Garden Mall), Westminster, (714) 893-1883.
Pho Filet 2 is a spinoff of the famous Pho Filet from the pho-intensive strip of South El Monte, specializing in Hanoi-style pho bac, a minimalist soup highlighted by a sprinkling of fresh ginger and a largish hunk of soft, bloody filet mignon hacked up like a guy who had lost a razor fight. Pho bac is pretty different from jazzy, amped-up Saigon pho – it’s quieter, less dependent on the flavors of caramelization, and uncluttered by the half-dozen meats common in southern-style pho. The newer Pho Filet seems like a step up, a larger, busier place with a long menu of Vietnamese specialties that don't happen to be pho – and perhaps most important, a shorter wait on weekends. The greens plate accompanying the pho bac is especially abundant, with not only a coupe of different kinds of fresh basil and the requisite mountain of bean sprouts, but also rau ram and sawtooth herb to stir into the broth if that’s your thing. And you can get an avocado shake. 2643 San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 280-1899.
Noodle Guy is kind of hip for a pho restaurant, furnished with lacquered wood, art on the walls and big flat-screen televisions permanently tuned to the basketball game. What you’re probably here for is the pho with pricey beef, thin raw slivers of the luxury meat that poach in the heat of the broth, floating among herbs, sliced chiles and slivered onions. The flesh firms but never quite cooks through, and its tenderness and richness are accentuated rather than overwhelmed by the cinnamon, clove and charred onion in the mild beef soup. 1257 Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 284-1868.
Golden Deli. You are here to eat cha gio, of course, the cigar-size fried imperial rolls whose crunch you can hear as far away as Downey. But while you are eating the cha gio, and sipping strong filter coffee, and wondering why a Vietnamese noodle shop has such an enormous selection of cupcakes, you are also probably slurping at an enormous bowl of pho. Golden Deli’s pho may suffer from thin broth, slightly gummy noodles and enough sodium to cause hypertension in a boa constrictor, but it is the pho that you dream of when you are marooned in gastronomic wastelands like Tokyo or Rome. 815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 308-0803.
Pho Thanh Lich. Remember the title sequence from "Beverly Hillbillies," when a stray bullet from Jed Clampett’s gun unloosed an oil gusher? That’s how I think of Westminster sometimes, a city where fragrant anise-scented beef broth pools right below the surface, ready to be pumped out by the tankerload and into bowls filled with onions and noodles. What I'm saying is that there's an awful lot of pho in Little Saigon. And while the haters have been saying that Pho Thanh Lich has gone downhill since it moved from one mini mall to another a couple of years ago, it still serves the pho-iest pho in Phoville, slithery noodles in a well-spiced, properly intense broth. 13135 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 531-5789.
Pho Huynh. Speaking of pho districts, one must take into account the weird concentration of Vietnamese noodle shops in South El Monte, a small town with almost no Vietnamese residents but with a concentration of pho shops unprecedented even in Little Saigon. The most popular of these is undoubtedly Pho Huynh, whose pleasantly gamy pho broth practically vibrates with what we shall call umami; a crude but wild broth that wants you to dance. 9706 Garvey Ave., South El Monte, (626) 350-6688.
East Borough. This isn’t pho, not exactly. But the proprietors of East Borough should be congratulated on their sandwich combining pho's simmered beef, the French bread and pickled vegetables of a banh mi sandwich, and a little side bowl of pho broth for dipping, into their "pho baguette," a mashup of the two Vietnamese dishes everyone knows with a Los Angeles French dip, a jolt of inspiration that may be up there with the Chinese chicken salad, the Beijing duck pizza and the galbi taco. Congratulations all around. 9810 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 596-8266, www.east-borough.com.
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