I’ve lived in the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) all my life and have seen the rise and fall of many, many Vietnamese Pho restaurants. I remember indulging in my first bowl of pho at Pho So 1 on Valley & Del Mar, next to Hawaii Supermarket, when I was 8. And when you’re 8, anything outside the realms of macaroni & cheese and pizza are completely foreign and ‘nasty’. The aroma of pho emanating outside of a restaurant is enough to make traffic stop. The taste of it is as refreshing as having a cup of ice water after a 30-minute treadmill run. This was 1986.
19 years later, I am still eating pho. And the San Gabriel Valley couldn’t be more saturated with Vietnamese restaurants. I may be bold in making this claim, but I truly believe that the SGV has better pho than the Westminster-based, Vietnamese enclave. Competition is way more intense there and uniformity is definitely prevalent. Pho brings the young and old together, and in most of my experiences, the sober and the drunk.
As a pho-snob, I’m going to list my top three places to eat pho. And again, I’m not going to bother mentioning Little Saigon. I’ve lived in Orange County for 5 years during my college years and frequented “Bolsa’ (another name for Little Saigon because of the avenue of Vietnamese establishments; much like SGV’s Valley Blvd.) During my college years, pho was my hangover remedy. I argue with people all the time about this and have changed their opinions like that.
A lot of people have this thing where they only go to pho places with a number in their name. God knows what those numbers mean. ‘88’ and ‘99’ supposedly allude to good luck, and the other numbers… maybe when the family first came to the states? Please fill me in on this if you know. I judge pho on the following criteria:
- Color of the broth
- Oiliness of the broth
- Quantity of toppings
- MSG residue
The aroma of pho should get you excited once the server hands you your bowl. It should automatically tickle your senses and nose hairs upon arrival. You should be able to see the steam rise up like a ghostly apparition into your nose, reeling you into its domain.
The color of the broth should not be white or too clear, otherwise your in for a bowl of pure MSG. A lot of shoddy restaurants can imitate the taste of pho, but only through the use of MSG. This is my preference, but I like the soup to have a brown tone to it. This is achieved through the amount of beef used in the broth, as well as the amount of roasted onions.
Oiliness. Who likes oily stuff? I believe it’s necessary to skin the top of the broth of any impurities from the beef. A little oiliness is nice for creating a shiny texture on the noodles, just not too much.
Toppings. You’ll know when a pho restaurant is doing well when they don’t skimp on the toppings. If you’re ordering Pho Dac Biet (means special and is usually the first listing you see on the menu), you should be getting a packed bowl. I’ve been to places and have ordered Pho Bo Vien (beef balls) and only got 4. Please.
MSG. Concerning MSG, you can read the section on the broth color. A good restaurant uses it sparingly. It is a necessity and completely avoidable. If you’ve eaten pho, you know how thirsty you can get. I usually end up drinking 4 glasses of water during the meal and 4 more at home. It makes you feel full and leaves an unpleasant ‘coat’ in your mouth and throat. There isn’t anything you can do about it besides going to a 7-11 and buying a big gulp to quench your thirst.
And now for the award ceremony.
Bronze medal goes to Pho 79 on Garfield/Main in Alhambra. This is a franchise and you can find them in just about any Asian enclave. Out of all the three I’ll be listing, this is the only one Zagat Rated, and with good reason. This is a typically large restaurant seating at least 120 guests and located in the new Downtown Alhambra. Movie-goers can drop by for a bowl of heaven. And you don’t need to bring elbow pads to avoid stickiness of the tables. Some of you may know what I’m talking about. Pho 79 is very clean. And the indoor plants they have add a nice ‘ambiance’.
Silver medal goes to Pho Pasteur on Valley/Rosemead in Rosemead. Pho establishments have started moving east on Valley Blvd, away from the main competition. I have to say this place is quite good. The pho, although MSG-laden, is very, very tasty and nice in broth color. They DO NOT skimp on meat. I used to be a LARGE pho bowl eater, but have downsized to the regular bowl because of Pho Pasteur. So if the waiter asks you to supersize it, just say NO! Doggy-bagging a bowl of pho is illegal. In addition to pho, a restaurant should serve good appetizers. After all, in that 8-10 minutes it takes for your order to come, you need to munch on something. I recommend their shrimp paste rolls with lettuce. Like cha gio (egg rolls), it is served with lettuce and fish sauce. It’s shrimp paste wrapped in bean curd sheets and deep fried. Oh man, heavenly. I wish these were on Jack in the Box’s finger foods menu. Oh yeah, expect a good 20-minute wait here on the weekends. It’s always family day at Pho Pasteur.
And finally, the gold medal goes to Golden Deli on Main/Mission in San Gabriel. I first went to Golden Deli in 1992 and the quality has remained consistent. This place has so much business where they can close down for the whole month of August for vacation. And trust me, people aren’t happy. That’s where the fore-mentioned restaurants start to prosper. But only for one month. Anyway, I HIGHLY recommend GD’s egg rolls – the best I’ve ever had. They give you FIVE, not four, crispy egg rolls. Their other appetizers, such as the fish paste (mentioned above), is also very good. GD also serves really good rice dishes. The other places mentioned above are not quite as good. And onto the pho, GD defines true broth color. Brown, full of onion flavor and not the least bit oily. My readers, this is truly a “Bowl of Heaven”. GD does not give as much meat as Pho Pasteur, but that’s okay. Expect a 30-minute wait here. If you want, you can also try “Vietnam Restaurant” across the street from GD. It is run by the same family of GD and specializes in “Seven Course Beef” cuisine. Also, very delectable and ‘fun’ to eat.
One final suggestion: please try out the restaurant’s broth before you ‘pollute’ it with the orange hot sauce (Sriracha) and sweet, brown sauce (Hoisin sauce). Those sauces will mask the truth behind each restaurant.
Thank you and enjoy. This is just my opinion.
29 S. Garfield Avenue
8821 Valley Blvd
815 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA