A TASTE OF VIETNAM--JUST PHO THE FUN OF IT

While not yet crowding out Big Macs, pizzas or tacos, there is spirited competition among the pho shops burgeoning throughout Southern California. This Vietnamese noodle-stand favorite is now available from a spiffy chain, franchised stores and independent shops with branches. But dispensaries of this filling beef-soup-with-salad meal-in-a-bowl are still largely concentrated in just a few zip codes. And so far few pho (pronounced fuhaa) shops have attempted to popularize their fare; several write their menus only in Vietnamese.

In Vietnam, this nourishing dish is available around the clock as a quick breakfast or lunch in noisy, crowded cafes and work-a-day stands. In the evenings, vendors pedal portable kitchens through residential streets; their cry-- fuuhaas-- is a familiar one.

The chef, who may spend a lifetime cooking this dish and nothing else, serves up his long-simmered beef broth over mounds of pho (fresh thin square-edged rice noodles from which the dish getes its name), topped with rare, thin beef slices and meat from the stockpot. With a flourish, he garnishes each bowl with sprigs of fragrant fresh herbs and bean sprouts, wedges of lime, slivers of chili. Crunchy, cold and warm, mildly tart and spicy, all the elements are at once distinct and complementary.

In Los Angeles little has changed. Even at $2.75 a bowl Vietnamese consumers seek out and debate whose broth is best. The mere suspicion of an institutional-sized can of pre-made broth in the pho kitchen would ruin the place's reputation. Two plates accompany each serving: The larger holds a little mountain of bean sprouts topped with fresh basil and coriander leaves; the smaller, lime wedges and fresh chili slices. On the table are bottles of chili-garlic sauce, fish sauce and sugar.

With chopsticks in one hand a soup spoon in the other, you alternately slurp noodles and soup, stopping occasionally to toss in some of the fresh basil or coriander leaves, a little squirt of lime, a chili sliver or one of the table condiments. It's obvious why there is little conversation at lunchtime and why it is hard to tire of the dish: Each bite has a different taste.

Pho Hoa in Santa Ana was one of California's first pho shops. Locally, its numbers have grown to four under a franchising-style arrangement. (There are also branches in San Francisco and Falls Church, Va.) Pho Hoa sticks strictly to the business of making pho , and the menu lists 20 varieties. A closer look reveals these to be combinations of the same six traditional beef topping ingredients served at most shops: tai (thin slices of rare beef), nam (well cooked flank), gau (well-cooked plate or brisket alternating ribbons of lean and fat), sach (tripe), gan (tendon) and bo vien (meatballs) in any combination may be selected to top your noodles. Thus you may choose rare beef slices alone, or rare beef and well-cooked flank, or rare beef, chewy tendon and well-cooked brisket or tendon and tripe, etc.

Pho Hoa's servings are particularly well manicured, with sliced rounds of meat or tendon meticulously swirled atop the mound of rice noodles, freshly made by a local factory. (It's considered gauche to use dry noodles now that fresh are available.)

If you're extra hungry, the king-sized combination bowl with five meats, or dac biet , the large-sized combination, should be abundantly satisfying.

Pho Hoa, 15034 S. Prairie Ave., Hawthorne, (213) 644-4106. Daily, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.

410 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (818) 281-6123.

640 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 626-5530. Daily 7 a.m.-9 p.m.

2317 West 1st St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-7558. Daily 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

The chain of Pho 79 shops is complete with a logo and designer guest receipts. "In Saigon, Pho 79 was as famous as McDonald's," a friend explained. But there's no relation to the Saigon restaurant; they have merely borrowed the name to make everyone feel at home.

Like Pho Hoa, the restaurant's main concern is pho , and while the servings are not as artistically presented and Vietnamese friends say the broth may not be quite first-rate, it tasted great to me. Pho 79 is just a little more mainstream than many shops, offering colas and fresh orange juice on the beverage list and flan au caramel for dessert. With your pho , try crispy Vietnamese spring rolls (cha gio) or steamed fresh rice papers stuffed with meat (banh cuon).

Pho 79, 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 625-7026. Closed Mondays.

881 E. Anaheim, Long Beach, (213) 599-5305. Open daily.

7941 Hazard St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2490. Closed Mondays.

Tiny, narrow Pho Quyen restaurant lists only four pho varieties on the menu. Their noodles are fresh, and I'm quite sure one could expand the choices by asking for the typical topping combinations. Here, though, much emphasis is on pho's southern cousin, hu tieu , with its clear and chewy vegetable starch noodles; 10 topping combinations are offered. I took home a wonderfully flavored roast pork, shrimp and crab-topped soup. As with all the places I visited, the noodles and toppings, garnishes and soup are packaged separately so they're not soggy when you get them home.

Pho Quyen, 667 N. Spring St., Chinatown, (213) 626-2642. Closed Wednesdays.

Pho Le Loi has branched out from its original extensive pho and noodle dish menu to offer various combination Vietnamese dinners and a special Vietnamese meal called Bo 7 Mon --seven courses of beef, each prepared in different way. This is a good place to go with friends who like to try a little bit of everything. The broth stands up with the best, and fresh noodles are used.

Pho Le Loi, 640 N. Spring St., Chinatown, (213) 680-4644. Open daily.

In a new shopping area called the "Today Plaza" off Bolsa Avenue there's a kind of modern-day fast-food area reminiscent of Singapore's outdoor food complexes or the market eateries of other Asian cities. Under one roof in a large, brightly lit hall with molded orange benches and tables, a number of take-out/eat-in restaurants share the immaculate facility. Along with a Chinese barbecue and a Chinese-Thai place is Pho Bac-Ha. In addition to spring rolls, steamed rice papers and 15 varieties of beef pho is something every pho lover should try--the chicken version, pho ga .

Pho Bac-Ha, 9711 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-1877. Open daily.

At the takeout counter of Pho Hien Vuong is a selection of Vietnamese-style bakery goods including puffy deep-fried and sesame-seed-coated taro balls with sweet bean filling. Refrain from sampling one of those heavy goodies until you've had a chance to eat some of the highly recommended pho at this tiny shop. The broth ranks with the best in town, and the steamed fresh rice papers stuffed with meat are miraculously light and translucent. From the 24 beverage offerings, including salty lemonade or yogurt with ice, you may find a new favorite.

Pho Hien Vuong, 2525 West 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 554-2696. Open daily.

On Westminster Boulevard for several years now, Pho Tuong-Lai recently opened a second place in the Little Saigon area of Bolsa Avenue. There is a Vietnamese menu and a shorter one written in English.

Each of Vietnam's three regions has its own local soup-salad variation, and this kitchen cooks them all. Before 1954, when nearly a million North Vietnamese emigrated to South Vietnam and popularized pho there, it was almost exclusively a northern dish. Bun bo Hue is the central region's spicy beef and pork hock soup with rice vermicelli. They also serve the southern hu tieu. A small list of side dishes includes bi cuon and goi cuon , the rice-paper-wrapped, fresh (not fried) spring rolls stuffed with shrimp, or pork and vegetables served with an enigmatically flavored sweet-spicy dipping sauce. The deli case holds a wonderful rainbow of pudding-like desserts in plastic cups. Most are bean based and come in such flavors as coconut, banana, sweet corn or sweet bean. Before an order is brought to the table, a rich coconut cream is poured over the top. If you're not in an adventurous mood, order the delicious Vietnamese-style iced coffee with sweet condensed milk.

Pho Tuong-Lai, 9784 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, (714) 537-5105. Open daily.

9911 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 895-6199.

In the Balsa Mini Mall, there are the excellent Pho Balsa, which has a menu written solely in Vietnamese, and Pho Ngan Dinh, which serves up 19 varieties of beef pho , four styles of chicken pho and 12 of hu tieu . The decor is pretty fancy, with chandeliers and little bouquets on the tables, and a steady stream of customers waiting for takeout orders. A rather extensive menu of non- pho dishes is offered, and the restaurant is open until 10 p.m.

Pho Ngan Dinh, 9541 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-0800. Closed Tuesdays.

Pho Tan Thuy means "boat sized" or "giant bowl" and is another pho restaurant appellation familiar in Vietnam. The shop is actually an extension of the Hoang Anh Restaurant next door. Both restaurants provide pho and hu tieu dishes and a full Vietnamese dinner menu. My vote? The pho is average--and that's still very good. The restaurant is open until 10, much later than most pho specialty shops.

Pho Tau Thuy 1, 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-5038. Open daily.

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