Pho 79: Good Mornings in Vietnam
The perfect breakfast is hard to find. Soul food is too fattening, diner food too bland, Japanese pickles just too weird before noon. If you like noodles, you might think Pho 79 serves the perfect breakfast, light, tasty and just exotic enough, inexpensive and filled with vitamins: beef soup. There’s sweet, freshly squeezed orange juice--also lemonade and the tropical fruit guanabana-- and soy milk for the lactophobe. The strong, dark-roasted coffee, dripped at table in individual stainless-steel French filters, is among the best anywhere. In an area, Chinatown, thick with Vietnamese noodle shops, Pho 79 serves the best, as its precursor did in Saigon before the fall, and as its cousin Pho 79s do in Westminster and Monterey Park.
The menu might look confusing at first, until you realize that most of the dishes are variations on one of two or three themes. As in most Vietnamese noodle shops, the best dish is listed first: pho (pronounced something like “far”) dac biet , slices of brisket, tendon, tripe and rare beef submerged with slippery rice noodles in a beef broth fragrant with garlic and cinnamon, onion and herbs. (If you hesitate more than an instant when ordering, a waiter may bark “Number One?” at you.) Even before 10 in the morning, two-thirds of the people here are slurping these giant bowls of noodles.
No two people eat pho the same way. You can squeeze a little lime juice or squirt some chile or hoisin sauce into the soup, or mix in bean sprouts, sliced hot chiles and leaves of fresh Vietnamese basil from a plate of herbs, making the dish something of a salad. The soup, tasty enough on its own, becomes obscenely good. If you order the variation called pho tai , noodles with rare beef, you can ask for the beef on the side; you dip the slices of raw beef in hot soup until they turn opaque, then dip them into a special chile paste. Other versions of pho include higher or lower proportions of brisket or tripe, or include beef meatballs that are gamy with Vietnam’s ubiquitous fish sauce.
Almost everything at Pho 79 that isn’t beef soup has something to do, somehow, with the combination of cool rice noodles and garlicky, wonderful barbecued pork. If you don’t like noodles, you’ll have to make do with pork chops. With bun cha , the grilled bits of pork are marinated in nuoc cham , the clear, sweet garlic-fish sauce that is to Vietnamese cooking what soy sauce is to Chinese. These bits come in one dish, garnished with ground peanuts and fried chips of garlic. Plain vermicelli comes in another, crisp romaine lettuce in a third. The idea, a do-it-yourself sort of thing, is to roll it all up into bundles of food, like little noodle-filled burritos wrapped in green, then dip them in nuoc cham .
Bun thit nuong is more or less the same thing, except the lettuce and the pork are on top of the noodles in a bowl (you have to pour the nuoc cham on yourself); bun tom thit nuong throws in a couple of charbroiled shrimp; bun thit nuong cha gio includes some chopped up Vietnamese spring rolls tossed right in there with the noodles; bun bao, not as delicious, substitutes sauteed beef. For a change, you can have the terrific fresh egg rolls called goi cuon , which are our old friends pork, shrimp, lettuce and vermicelli all wrapped up in a sheet of edible rice paper, ready to dip in the chile-spiked hoisin sauce called nuoc leo.
The fried spring rolls, cha gio , stuffed with thin noodles and a crab and pork forcemeat, come seven to an order, hotly spiced with black pepper. You wrap the crisp dumplings with marinated carrots in leaves of romaine as you do the bun cha --during the summer there are sometimes four or five different herbs to wrap in with them, mint, cilantro and two or three kinds of fresh basil--and dip it in yet another bowl of nuoc cham . (Without fail, your party will end up with several bowls of fish sauce apiece and enough greenery to feed a gerbil for a year.)
Of course, Pho 79 does have a few drawbacks. On weekend mornings, you may have to wait for as long as five minutes. They haven’t changed their one Vietnamese easy-listening tape since they opened a few years ago, and if you go every week, you get to know the songs pretty well. And they’re invariably closed the one day in the middle of the week you decide to carpool from downtown for lunch. Call ahead.
Pho 79, 727 N. Broadway, Suite 120, Chinatown. (213) 625-7026. Open Thursday-Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Validated parking. Cash only. Beer and wine. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7-$12.