A Trillion Peaces

Van Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant

4016 54th Street, City Heights

It's 6:30 in the morning. Loan ("Lo-Ann"), the beautiful, solemn-faced Vietnamese girl in the green smock, hands me the note.

It's from my lifeguard buddy.

"Ed: Time and tide wait for no man. Off to Catalina. Rod."

What? I stand here in front of a big, gold, laughing Buddha. Daggone it! That was gonna be a sail up the coast, free bunk, loadsa fun, on Rod's old fixer yacht. Gawn, just because I missed the 5:00 a.m. bus. By a single red light at the crosswalk.

We'd talked last night. "Meet me at the Van Hoa pho restaurant tomorrow morning, next to the Vien Dong supermarket, six sharp," Rod said. "I'm going to pick up a few sandwiches to eat on the way. Vietnamese sandwiches out on the ocean, man. The best!"

So the #7 bus got me here, what? Twenty minutes late?

I turn over the piece of paper Loan handed me. Huh. Rod scratched something on the other side.

"Try the pho."

Pho? That's, like, the national dish of Vietnam, isn't it? I look at Loan's serious, but seriously beautiful face. Waiting to see if I'm going to order.

"Okay," I say. "I'll have a pho."

"A fur?" she says.

"No, a pho."

"No, that's how we say it. 'Fur.'"

Oh, right. Rings a bell now. They say the word may have come from the French colonial types' pot au feu, meaning a soupy beef stew.

"Which fur?" says Loan.

Uh-oh. They have a bunch of them.

"Which is best?" I ask.

Loan doesn't hesitate a pho moment. She points to #14, Dac Biet. Says it means "special," or "combo with everything."

Hmm... It says, "Special combo with rare slices of steak, well-done steak, well-done brisket, flank, tendon, and tripe, $5.25. Served with bean sprouts, lemon, jalapeño, poke leaf, and basil."

That's interesting: rare and well-done steak meat, and all those leaves and sprouts. Of course, they have around 20 more phos, with micro-variations. Like, #20 includes rare steak, well-done flank steak, tripe; #25 is rare steak and tendon. But they branch out too, like, #30, meatballs, and #31, shrimp, all around the $5–$6 mark.

They also have appetizers such as banh xeo, Vietnamese crepe ($5.25), cha gio (Vietnamese egg rolls), six for $4.50, or those famous see-through spring rolls (two for $2.95). Then rice or rice vermicelli plates priced at $5–$7, some stir-fried chow mein (most around $6–$7), and vegetarian dishes, $2.50–$6.50.

But I guess pho's the real Vietnamese thing. So I order the Dac Biet and a Vietnamese iced coffee and sit back to soak in the early-morning atmosphere. It's fresh and new-looking here, must say. An older woman comes out with a bunch of buns on a tray. Another follows with steaming soup bowls. "Khai Trung Hong Phat," says a gold-on-red sign strung across the side wall.

"It's Vietnamese. Means 'Grand opening, lots of luck,'" says this youngish man, Hien, as he brings me a plate of green-leafed plants and bean sprouts. "We opened three years ago." The name, Van Hoa, means "a trillion peaces," he says. Behind him, Loan brings my big white china bowl of steaming soup with slices of pink steak meat and an undersea mountain of vermicelli noodles.

That's when I notice the instructions. Page three of the menu. "How to Eat Pho." Uh, how to eat soup? This is interesting. First, it says, gather the bean sprouts and plunk them in the broth so they cook a little in the liquid's heat and give it some of their flavor. Next, squeeze in most of the half-lemon that comes with the herbs, then break off the poke and the basil leaves from their stems, and, uh, poke them under too. I do. Ooh, the aromas. Basil, the pesto herb, smells a little like clove, a little like licorice, a little lemony. And poke? All I can think of is that song I've heard Elvis belt out, "Polk Salad Annie." Guess I'm having that poke salad now. I keep stirring. Stir them all in underwater, inhaling as they add their flavors to the flavor of the slow-cooked, beef-bone broth.

Then, finally, you're supposed to squirt in some of the plum-colored hoisin sauce (which I see is actually mostly soy beans, chili, and garlic) and some of the red Sriracha chili sauce they have at every table.

"And," says Hien, "Vietnamese people often take some of the hoisin and chili sauce, put it on a side plate, squeeze the last of the lemon, and stir it into a little dipping sauce."

So I do that too, then pick up my chopsticks in my right hand, grab one of a stack of ceramic-looking flat oriental spoons in the other, and go noodle 'n' beef huntin'. After each chew, I slurp a few spoonfuls of the soup. Have to say: what looked like a thin, watery broth when it first arrived has turned into a rich, beefy, herby, and — maybe I put too much Sriracha in — tear-sprouting hot breakfast.

The sound system swells with one of those heart-rending Vietnamese love songs. They say many Vietnamese get sentimental over pho because it represents everything they love and miss about their homeland.

It suddenly hits me. I'm kinda glad I didn't catch Rod. We'd've grabbed our sandwiches (most cost a couple of bucks and up) and run. I would never have learned how to eat pho. Or pronounce it. Guess you can pho all of the people some of the time. Hey, after this morning, you could pho me all of the time.

  • The Place: Van Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant, 4016 54th Street, East San Diego 619-582-2642
  • Type of Food: Vietnamese
  • Prices: Dac Biet pho (beef soup), with rare and well-done steak, brisket, flank, tendon, tripe, $5.25; pho with meatballs, $5.25; pho with shrimp, $5.65; Vietnamese crepe, $5.95; Vietnamese egg rolls, six for $4.50; spring rolls (two), $2.95; broken rice with shredded pork, steamed meatloaf, and pork chop, $6.50; rice vermicelli with charbroiled shrimp, $5.65; chow mein with veggies and beef, $6.50; with seafood, $6.95
  • Hours: 6:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. daily; Sunday, till 7:00 p.m.
  • Buses: 7, 10, 955
  • Nearest Bus Stop: 54th and University

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A few years back, my wife and I went to DC to check out the city and spend some time with her dad. She had won the trip in a raffle at a benefit dinner, 3 days at a nice hotel and the airfare... we stretched it into a week trip by staying a few more days at an inexpensive hotel.

Her dad had married a woman from Thailand, so of course they took us to the best (tasting) Pho joint in Maryland.

The rest of the trip was walking a million miles through every Smithsonian, going to the White House (pre-911), and checking out Congress (amazing building, too bad it's so "secure" now).

As soon as we were back in San Diego, the search was on for a good noodle house. After trying a few, we settled on Saigon, across from Hoover High School.

It's only 7am, but I could go for a bowl right now! - Joe

My mouth is watering also! Great review!

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