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Dishes from Pho Dakao
(Dylan James Ho)

9 must-try Vietnamese restaurants in the SGV — for stone-pot pho and more

Born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, I can tell you that it has been an absolute pleasure as someone who loves food: The culinary landscape is bountiful, exciting and ever-changing. My entire family would pile into the car and drive along Valley Boulevard, scanning for new restaurants, looking left and right for unfamiliar signs or grand opening banners. The prominence of Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants in the SGV is evident on virtually every strip mall sign bearing Chinese logograms (with translated English business names that usually mean something else entirely). But I was always intrigued by the occasional romanized words with diacritcal marks that signify a Vietnamese establishment. They planted the seeds of an obsession.

I still remember my first bowl of pho in the ’80s when it was $3.75. To a Chinese American kid, the noodles and broth looked familiar, but the aroma and taste were unlike anything I had experienced. It would be the first of hundreds of Vietnamese noodle soups I have eaten across Southern California, other Vietnamese enclaves in America and ultimately in Vietnam.

Dozens of Vietnamese restaurants are strewn throughout Rosemead, San Gabriel, El Monte and South El Monte. But the number is minuscule compared to Orange County’s Little Saigon, the most prominent Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. In that sense, the San Gabriel Valley is always in its shadow. Even my parents knew it was better to make the one-hour trek each way to Westminster and Garden Grove, the two cities that Little Saigon straddles, for the best Vietnamese food and groceries. We’d spend hours at shopping centers such as Phuoc Loc Tho (Asian Garden Mall), absorbing the culture through food.

Driving down to Orange County for a “Little Saigon-a-thon” became my monthly tradition — in which I would visit as many new and old restaurants as my stomach could bear in a single trip. But everything changed during the pandemic (and once gas prices skyrocketed). I shifted my attention back to the Vietnamese restaurants of the SGV. Longtime businesses such as Golden Deli, Summer Rolls (formerly Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa), Nha Trang and Newport Seafood are still around, but more recently, I’ve focused on several places that are notable and newish (they’ve opened in the last couple of years) and as delicious as many favorites in Little Saigon. They also show that there’s more to Vietnamese food than pho, bun and banh mi.

These restaurants are so defining of what it means to eat and live in Southern California — that they’ve earned a place of honor for all time.

Dec. 5, 2023

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(From Top, CW) Banh Canh Cua / Vietnamese Crab Udon Mi Nam Vang (Kho) / Vietnam-style Phnom Penh Combination Noodles (Dry style) + Pork Bone Soup on the side Pho dac biet / Special Stone Bowl Beef Pho (always specify the stone bowl) Canh Bun / Crab Patty & Water Spinach Vermicelli Soup
When ordering pho at Golden Delight, ask for it served in a stone bowl (bottom left).
(Dylan James Ho)

Golden Delight

Rosemead Vietnamese
Not to be confused with Golden Deli, this was a postpandemic discovery that really put Vietnamese food on SGV’s map for me, mainly because it offers so many great hits under one roof. Golden Delight has two menus, overseen by two chefs: During the day, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., find a Vietnamese menu; from noon to closing, the restaurant offers a Chinese-Vietnamese seafood menu (à la Newport Seafood). Note that the Vietnamese menu isn’t available in the evening. On it you’ll find hủ tiếu nam vang, a Vietnamese-Cambodian pork and prawn noodle soup (served with the broth, or order it on the side). Or order the banh canh cua crab noodle soup; bún bò Huế, the famous beef noodle soup named for the central Vietnamese city; and cha gio crispy egg rolls. If you feel your pho broth is never hot enough, this is your place. The signature beef or chicken pho arrives at your table bubbling in a stone pot, similar to Korean dolsot bibimbap. It’s best to dine here with a large group so you can try more of the menu. From the evening Vietnamese-Chinese menu, try house special lobster, house special fish fillets, and shaking beef and basil clams. Bonus: The giant 4K TV screens loop cooking scenes (and waterfalls) so you can watch videos of food while you’re eating food.
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Pho Dakao (L to R) Pho Ga Kho - Dry-Rice noodles with Stir-fried Chicken Mien Ga di bo - Glass Noodles with Free-Range Chicken Pho Ga di bo - Rice noodles with Free-Range Chicken
Rice noodles and soup at Pho Dakao, a specialist in chicken pho.
(Dylan James Ho)

Pho Dakao

Rosemead Vietnamese
Do most pho lovers associate their favorite pho with beef? Probably. But there’s also the chicken pho camp of believers. Chicken pho restaurants aren’t new to the San Gabriel Valley, but Pho Dakao, which originates in Little Saigon (where it’s been open since the 1990s), offers a traditional phở gà and phở gà only. A sign outside the restaurant clearly states that beef pho is not offered here. What Pho Dakao also offers, unlike other Vietnamese chicken pho restaurants, is the regional dish phở ga khô — “dry”-style chicken pho with a sidecar of clear chicken broth — from Vietnam’s central highlands. Rather than poached chicken, the chicken (white or dark) is stir-fried in a wok and served with lettuce, bean sprouts and a special dipping sauce, made of Maggi seasoning sauce, vinegar, ginger and sugar. The sweet ginger dipping sauce that accompanies the dish just makes the chicken that much more delicious. Also try: gỏi gà (chicken cabbage salad), cánh gà chiên nước mắm (fish sauce wings) and miến gà (pho ga with glass noodles).
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Boston Lobster (From Top, CW) Bo Luc Lac / Vietnamese Shaking Beef Rau Muong Xao Toi / Stir-Fried Water Spinach with Garlic Ngheu Xao la que / Clams with Basil Sauce Tom Hum Xao dac biet / Boston House Special Lobster
Boston Lobster accommodates large groups, but there are no reservations, so show up early.
(Dylan James Ho)

Boston Lobster

Rosemead Vietnamese
If you love seafood, check out the new Boston Lobster, which recently upgraded to the massive space that formerly housed tiki restaurant Bahooka in Rosemead. More room to accommodate the masses means less waiting time for a table than at its previous strip-mall location (where you could be standing around for a punishing 2½ to three hours). Boston Lobster offers Chinese cuisine fused with the flavors of Vietnam and other regions of Southeast Asia, like Newport Seafood and Golden Delight. The house lobster served over noodles is what you come for, but stay for the shaking beef (bò lúc lắc), clams with basil (nghêu xào lá quế), soy sauce scallion steamed fish and stir-fried morning glory with garlic (rau muống xào tỏi). Some massive tables can accommodate 12 to 14 people — with huge lazy susans too. Just remember, no reservations. Go early.
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Bun Mam Cay Dua Bun Mam dac biet / Fermented Fish Soup Noodles with Squid, Pork, Fish & Eggplant Banh Xeo / Vietnamese Crepes with Pork, Shrimp & Bean Sprouts
Bún mắm is the specialty at Bun Mam Cay Dua — noodle soup with squid, pork, fish and eggplant. Order the bánh xèo — crispy, turmeric-tinged crèpe.

(Dylan James Ho)

Bun Mam Cay Dua

Rosemead Vietnamese
For those interested in venturing beyond the comfort of noodle soups like pho and bún bò Huế, Bun Mam Cay Dua offers its namesake dish, bún mắm. Bún mắm is a popular dish from southern Vietnam (Soc Trang) where the region borders Cambodia and shares its flavors. Mam is a fermented shrimp paste and the main ingredient for this robustly pungent, sweet, tangy yet balanced noodle soup topped with crispy pork belly, steamed pork belly, fish, shrimp, shrimp paste, squid, eggplant and bell peppers and served with the usual accoutrements of bean sprouts and herbs. Don’t miss the banh canh cua, which is usually described as Vietnamese crab udon and comes in a delicious, starchy broth. If you’re a fan of bánh xèo — the crispy, savory, stuffed rice crêpe (the name refers to the sound the turmeric-tinged rice batter makes when ladled or poured into a hot skillet) — Bun Mam Cay Dua’s is distinctive. This one is taco-sized, which is key. If bánh xèo is too big or overstuffed, it gets soggy, fast. What I like about the smaller size is you can consume it much more easily and quickly, so it stays crunchier (and you still have room for bún mắm — or cơm tấm, “broken rice”).
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At Bánh Mì Saigon 168 (left to right), bánh mì with: sliced pork meatloaf and liver pâté; grilled pork; and pork with headcheese. 
 Cha lua + Pate (sliced pork meatloaf + liver pate), Banh Mi Thit nuong (grilled pork), Banh Mi Thit Nguoi, Saigon Special (pork, headcheese)
At Bánh Mì Saigon 168 (left to right), bánh mì sandwiches come in two sizes.
(Dylan James Ho)

Bánh Mì Saigon 168

Rosemead Vietnamese
Also from Orange County (with locations on Brookhurst Street and Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon) comes this new bánh mi specialist known for its beautifully baked baguettes. Sandwiches come in two sizes, categorized under “baguette” and “round bread,” which is more an oval than round per se, and though chubby, it’s smaller than the baguette; it’s also the same price, except if you buy two of these, you get one free. Anyway, the baguette makes a proper bánh mi with quality bread. When you bite into it, you’ll notice it doesn’t shatter and leave a pile of crumbs but instead cracks like a broken windshield, maintaining structure and its airy texture. Choose your favorite bánh mi filling (grilled pork, grilled beef, sardines, etc.) or try the special fried fish cake, bánh mì chả cá. This is a great snack spot for crispy egg rolls (three for $2.95) and pâté chaud (also three for $2.95) — here it’s pork liver pâté in flaky pastry. Drink options include Vietnamese coffee and avocado smoothies.
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Pho Saigon Pasteur Pho & Ribeye / Shabu-style Ribeye hot pot + Pho
At Pho Saigon Pasteur, pho with ribeye in the style of hot pot.
(Dylan James Ho)

Pho Saigon Pasteur

Alhambra Vietnamese
Named after French scientist Louis Pasteur and his namesake institution in Vietnam, Pho Saigon Pasteur is the second location opened by the family that also runs Pho Saigon Republic (formerly Pho Hoa) in Chinatown. But the menu in downtown Alhambra is far more extensive, and it’s evident that it is quickly becoming the pho specialist in SGV. For those who want a unique pho experience, you can order rib-eye pho, shabu shabu-style, where a separate pot of broth heated by Sterno candle comes to the table for cooking the raw rib-eye meat and maintaining the temperature of your pho. For a beefier punch to your pho, ask for nước béo, golden oil skimmed from beef bone broth. Other favorites here include the beef stew with bread or noodles (bò kho) and Vietnamese-style steak ’n’ eggs in a cast-iron skillet (bò né).
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From King Com Tam (L to R): Com Tam King Special Combo (King Com Tam Broken Rice Combo, 10 items), Banh Hoi King Special Combo (King Thin Vermicelli Patty Combo, 10 items)
The vermicelli and “broken rice” combos at King Com Tam.
(Dylan James Ho)

King Com Tam

San Gabriel Valley Vietnamese
If you’re more into rice than noodles, Viet diner King Com Tam (formerly Com Tam Thuan Kieu) specializes in cơm tấm, “broken rice” plates. Depending on your appetite, the signature combo platter comes with either seven or 10 items over your broken rice and a sidecar of pork spare rib broth. You can opt for banh hoi, which are bundles of woven vermicelli (bun), with your combo choice of toppings such as grilled meat (chicken, beef ribs, pork), Chinese sausage, steamed egg, shrimp cake wrapped in bean curd skin and fried, sugar-cane shrimp paste, shredded pork skin, shrimp and/or egg rolls. It’s a hands-on dish served with mỡ hành scallion oil for dipping: Take a piece of lettuce, line it with a bundle of noodles and herbs, then choose your toppings, dip and repeat. With more than 200 items on the menu, there are almost too many choices. But the specialty is the broken rice.
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From Mien Tay: Banh Mi Xiu Mai (My Tho-style "Xiu Mai" Meatball + Bread)

Bánh mì xíu mại at Mien Tay is a two-handed breakfast: tear a piece of baguette and dip it into the soup; spoon off some of the meatball and smear that onto the bread too.
(Dylan James Ho)

Mien Tay

El Monte Vietnamese
Mien Tay offers a different kind of breakfast, a two-handed meal of bánh mì xíu mại. A large steamed meatball is lathered with a glossy sauce made of tomatoes and tapioca starch, served in a bowl; the meatball is studded with diced jicama and at the center is a quail egg like a hidden treasure. Tear off a piece of the baguette that it comes with and spoon the xíu mại and sauce into it, add some herbs and chile sauce and enjoy for breakfast or lunch. In the evening, Mien Tay’s specialty is goat hot pot called lẩu dê.
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Happy Buddha Kitchen (From Top, CW) Com Ca Kho To / Claypot Peppered Fish Bun Bo Hue / Hue Lemongrass "Beef" Noodle Soup Banh Mi Ca Ri / Curry Tofu with Baguette
Happy Buddha Kitchen specializes in creative vegetarian dishes.
(Dylan James Ho)

Happy Buddha Kitchen

Temple City Vietnamese
With a large population of Vietnamese practicing Buddhism, it only makes sense that there would be vegetarian offerings that are healthy, delicious and creative. For pho lovers, the vegan “beef” is none other than Beyond Meat. Many Vietnamese standards are available here in vegetarian and vegan versions, including bowls of vermicelli with crispy egg rolls, noodle soups such as the aforementioned pho and bún bò Huế. The clay pot peppered “fish” is wrapped in seaweed for its of-the-ocean flavor.
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