It came to me four or five years ago as — surfacing to catch my breath — I looked up from a steaming bowl of pho: there were more non-Vietnamese patrons having lunch in this Linda Vista pho shop than Vietnamese. That’s when I knew that pho (usually pronounced “fuh,” though regional accents differ) — Vietnamese noodle soup — had made it. When we moved to San Diego ten years ago, you rarely saw this demographic in Vietnamese restaurants, but that day I saw Hispanic workers looking for a cheap and hearty lunch, several tables of students, and even three men in suits, ties slung over their shoulders, cautiously sipping away.
9326 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa
9170 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa
4717 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
6921 Linda Vista Road, Linda Vista
5223 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
4647 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
6533 Mission Gorge Road, Grantville
6947 Linda Vista Road, Linda Vista
3860 Convoy Street #116 & 117, Kearny Mesa
Since then, there has been an explosion of pho shops across the greater San Diego area, from Santee to PB, Oceanside to Ocean Beach, Mission Gorge to Mission Valley. We now have second-generation shops: Pho Hiep and Grill has three locations, same with Pho Ca Dao. But the recent opening of Mignon Pho + Grill brought something I’d been longing for: filet mignon pho. It’s a paradox, since pho is considered cheap eats and filet mignon the opposite, but I’ve grown tired of tái (rare beef) used as the primary meat for pho in San Diego. Usually eye of round, it’s tasteless, tough, and dry, even when served on the side, which is what I recommend. So although I was disappointed with the broth at Mignon Pho, which lacked character, and in spite of having to part with a Jefferson for the bowl, I’m glad this type of pho is making its way south from places like Pho Thanh Lich in Westminster. Pho Mignon is also representative of a new wave of pho shops: clean, well lit, and with friendly servers.
So how do I like my pho bo? I prefer a clear, amber-colored broth with specks of oil (fat, really) swimming on the surface. Perhaps because I was raised consuming Chinese-influenced soups, I go for a beefy fragrance with hints of anise, coriander, and cassia. I prefer cuts such as brisket and flank, but my personal favorite is beef tendon, which, when prepared well, is textural nirvana. And while I’ve gotten used to the mushy clump of noodles in the bottom of the bowl, firmer bánh pho (rice noodles) is appreciated. As for garnishes? Nothing fancy for me. You can get everything from nuoc beo (rendered beef tallow), blanched bean sprouts, or Vietnamese sate sauce (a chili-lemongrass-garlic-shallot-fish sauce) for your bowl, but all I add is a couple of leaves of Thai basil, torn to up the anise-ante, some ngò gai (cilantro/sawtooth herb) if provided, for a layer of mild cilantro flavor, raw bean sprouts for crunch, and a squeeze or two of lime to smooth out the broth if it’s too salty. I do find those folks who add half a bottle of Hoisin sauce or Sriracha without even tasting the broth cringe-inducing…but, hey, whatever floats your boat.
My two favorite pho shops aren’t located on El Cajon Boulevard or the Linda Vista/Convoy corridor, but situated almost across the street from one another on Mira Mesa Boulevard. Pho Lucky is attached to Lucky Seafood, and I’ve experienced my share of downs with regard to a bowl, but when the soup’s right, it’s fragrant with a dose of anise, cinnamon, and clove. The bowls are inexpensive, the regular size just crossing the five-dollar mark. Across the street is Pho Cow Cali (formerly Pho Hoa Cali). The broth here is lighter, more neutral, but still packs a beefy backbone. For preparation of the various cuts of beef, Pho Cow Cali is the most consistent. It’s usually packed for lunch, the smell of pho permeating every nook and cranny. Both restaurants follow the “A–B” business philosophy: it’s “All Business” here.
As for the rest? For old-school pho, both Pho Hoa on El Cajon Boulevard and Pho Hoa Huong (also known as Pho Hoa Linda Vista) on Linda Vista Road have been around forever. Pho Hoa Huong’s broth is some of the darkest I’ve seen; Pho Hoa’s also runs dark, with an anise-and-clove punch. The restaurants look as if they’ve seen better days but have a loyal clientele. Upon entry you’re pointed to a table, a menu is dealt, then the server stands waiting for your order. The pressure of ordering quickly can be nerve-racking, but in Hanoi I learned that this is the standard pho position.
Pho Ca Dao on El Cajon Boulevard serves up my favorite tendon, buttery and soft. Their other locations don’t quite do it the same, and there’s a huge difference in the broth as well. Pho Convoy Noodle House has good and bad days. When it’s good, the broth is richer and packs more flavor than other shops in the area. I recently had a very nice bowl at Pho Xpress off Mission Gorge Road. The broth had a wonderful light sheen of oil with more beef flavor than usual, in spite of the portion size being a tad small. Pho Hiep and Grill on Linda Vista Road is opposite Pho Hoa Huong in the same strip mall, and their light, somewhat restrained broth is a 180-degree turn as well. I often recommend Pho Hiep and Grill to folks who’ve never had pho before. As a plus, they open at 7:30 a.m., so you can have a proper bowl for breakfast, just as in Vietnam.
Overall, I haven’t had much luck with the second-generation shops. They look clean and well scrubbed, the staff is fluent in English, and there might be a fountain, pond, or waterfall to attract your attention, but other than Pho Hiep and Grill on Telegraph Canyon Road in Chula Vista, which hits pretty close to the original location in Linda Vista, most fall short in flavor and preparation.
Recently, a good friend, “YY,” whose dad used to own and run a Vietnamese restaurant, told me that there are now close to 50 pho shops in the greater San Diego area. So much pho, so little time.