2023 has barely started…and we’re already drowning in a tidal wave of madcap National Food Days!
The year’s very first day, Jan. 1, was National Bloody Mary Day. (Which considering how much you celebrated the end of 2022, might or might not be something you can rationally face.) Jan 2 was National Buffet Day – though why, I cannot fathom. It also was National Cream Puff Day. Jan 3 was National Fruitcake Toss Day, whatever that might be.
The month continues with National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day, National Spaghetti Day, National Whipped Cream Day, National Tempura Day, National Curried Chicken Day, National Hot Pastrami Sandwich Day and more. Many more.
Finally, on the last day of January, it will be National Pho Day – a day that, not long ago, would have been a puzzlement to just about anyone who wasn’t Vietnamese.
The first thing you have to know is that pho is not pronounced “foe” (as in “fee-fi-fo-fum”). Rather, it’s pronounced “fuh.” You want to demonstrate that you didn’t just emerge from the primordial slime, you gotta say “fuh” when ordering your pho.
The next thing to know is that pho – like Jewish chicken soup – can come in sundry forms. It’s always built around broth, rice noodles, herbs and usually meat, beef or chicken. But not always. You go to a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant, there won’t be any meat. You go to a modernist restaurant, you might find pho made with shrimp, with pork or with lamb. Here in SoCal, it’s all right. This is the land of culinary reinterpretation.
As with the taco, pho is an essentially simple creation that’s been re-created in a multitude of ways – though goodness knows there are many classic versions to be found in Los Angeles and Orange counties, which are said to have the largest Vietnamese population outside of Viet Nam. And, like the taco, the origin of pho is open to dispute—though noodle soup with meat is such a global concept, pho could have originated anywhere, at any time in history.
What’s not open for dispute is that it’s the national dish of Vietnam. Pho is generally believed to have originated in the north, largely through street vendors, and then it was spread worldwide by Vietnam War refugees.
Broadly speaking, there are also two versions of pho – the Hanoi style, and the Saigon style – which differ depending on the width of the noodles, the sweetness of the broth, and the use of herbs and spices.
Culinary historians have suggested that beef was first used in pho as a result of the French taste for meat. On days that beef wasn’t available, chicken was the protein of choice.
Everyday street vendors could be found carrying incredibly heavy mobile pho kitchens on wooden poles. One of the poles supported a cauldron over a wood fire. Hanging from the other were noodles, spices and serving bowls. The vendors were always men, all of whom wore the same felt hats called a “mu pho.”
This wasn’t so much a dish as it was a ritual. And it is still.
That said, vendors selling pho on the streets of SoCal aren’t really a thing. Fortunately, it’s served at plenty of local Vietnamese restaurants, where the pho will warm you on the chilliest of days and inspire perspiration to cool you on the hottest – with a taste of global culinary history in every bowl.
With that, here are the places I turn to when pho is called for:
Vinh Loi tofu
18625 Sherman Way, Reseda; 818-996-9779, www.vinhloitofu.com
You go to any number of Vietnamese pho joints around town, and you’re confronted with a choice of any number of cuts of beef, some fairly obscure, along with pork pates and sundry sausages.
You go to Vinh Loi Tofu – a couple of small rooms with a counter in the front – and you’re told, in no uncertain terms, that this is not the land of beef or pork. The menu declares this a “No Meat Zone.” But although the menu may be meatless, it’s not without meat substitutes. There’s vegan chicken, vegan beef, vegan shrimp, gluten duck, vegan fish, gluten abalone, soy ham, vegan tuna, vegan seafood.
All of that has attracted a loyal following to Vinh Loi Tofu, who show up for the 16 soups, seven salads, 12 noodles dishes, nine spring rolls, eight banh mi sandwiches (they call them “subs” on the menu), sundry rice Dishes—and nine tofu dishes. The tofu dishes were my favorite creations here, some served in crispy pieces, others in blocks.
And those crispy pieces – like the fried tofu flavored with lemongrass and chili – were very tasty, though, of course, they weren’t pretending to be anything but tofu.
There’s a rack of do-it-yourself/help-yourself seasonings between the two rooms, with several spicy sauces that make the crispy tofu that much better – Sriracha makes just about everything taste like, well, Sriracha. The rack sits next to a large glass-fronted refrigerator filled with green tea and fruit drinks.
And, despite my reservations about the meat substitutes, the food here is very good. Not as richly flavored as Thai vegan cooking, but a fine variation on the theme. I didn’t much like the texture of the vegan beef and chicken in the spring rolls – too rubbery for me. But the rolls come with a good peanut sauce, and the veggies within are nice and crisp. So, I picked out the subs, and had a good dish.
The meat subs fit better into the noodle dishes, where they get lost amidst the greens and pickles and peanuts.
I noticed that a number of tables were staring at their menus in puzzlement; at which point the cheery servers happily jumped in, and offered to bring a selection of the most popular dishes. The table next to mine did just that – they seemed happy to be surprised.
But another table insisted on staring in puzzlement at their menus. They were puzzling when I entered. And they were puzzling when I left. The good news is, whenever they made up their minds, they’d eat quickly – service at Vinh Loi Tofu is rocket-fast. With lots of takeout passing out the door.
19100 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; 818-600-8784, www.unwind-restaurant.com
The food options at Unwind wine bar are all over the map – unexpected, eccentric and properly tasty to match the wines. Or, at least as much as wines from all over the world can be matched with dishes from all over the map.
It’s a menu that begins with the heading “Tapas,” though few of these “tapas” are found at traditional Spanish tapas bar. There are, for instance, egg rolls, described as “Vietnamese style,” filled with either pork or tofu. There are crispy chicken croquettes topped with (yes!) Spanish serrano ham – right next to French onion soups, clams in white wine sauce and tuna tartare.
The specials run to pan-seared salmon, slow-baked short ribs, very good beef or chicken pho on Thursdays and Saturdays…and Korean barbecue on the same days. Friday would seem to be a good day to offer specials as well, but I guess whoever does the cooking works limited days.
And it’s decidedly odd to find pho and Korean barbecue at a wine shop – these are beer dishes, no question. But then, at Unwind, there are no real rules.
The entrées section is a bit of a catch-all for everything else – Nicoise salad, a burger, crispy chicken, a Cuban sandwich, mushroom risotto. There’s also a vegan section, because these days there’s got to be. Yuca fries (is the aioli dip vegan?), roasted Brussels sprouts with Fuji apples, an impossible burger, shishito peppers and the inevitable kale salad.
These days, there’s always a kale salad. I’m so tired of kale salads. But then, that’s me.
Do these dishes go with wines? Darned if I know. But then, I’ve never been very obsessed with matching and pairing. I’ve argued for a long time that good wine and good food go together, well, always. It’s a mantra that’s gotten me through life.
Pho Sun 1
16860 Devonshire St, Granada Hills, 818-488-1408; 7231 Reseda Blvd., Reseda, 818-996-6515; 6450 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys, 818-989-6377; 22902 Vanowen St., West Hills, 818-884-8356; 19548 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, 818-345-1685; www.phoso1togo.com
With branches spread across the San Fernando Valley, Pho So 1 is pretty much the dominant destination for pho – which is offered in some two dozen variations on the menu, along with a world of chao and banh canh (porridge and rice stick noodle soup) , my glass noodle soup, and my egg noodle soup.
You can’t go to Pho So 1 without enjoying a hot bowl of warm, soothing goodness. Which can, admittedly, be something of a puzzlement in terms of the sundry ingredients. How to choose between the rare steak, well-done brisket, flank tendon and tripe version…and the rare steak, well-done flank steak, brisket, tendon and tripe option.
There are subtleties here that elude those of us who didn’t grow up on the streets of Saigon or Hanoi, with one assortment of meats sounding very much like another, all built around steak, flank steak, brisket, tendon and tripe – sometimes singly , sometimes in pairs, often in large groupings.
Eventually, we get to the beef balls and rice noodles; to the chicken rice noodle and shrimp rice noodle, the beef stew and rice noodle – and, for variation, the pan-fried crispy noodle stir fry, in soup. There’s beef stew in soup too.
More than anything, there’s much satisfaction, lots of joy, and an abundance of food at miniscule prices. With veggies to put on top, and condiments galore. And there are branches everywhere we turn.
Windsor Village, 6411 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys; 818-782-1999
Vietnamese pho shops do have a thing for numerology. We go from Pho So 1 to Pho 999, and in the process, from two dozen pho variations to one dozen.
Each of them is described on the menu in detail for those who need some annotation concerning the subtleties of the big bowl of warm they’re about to ingest. Indeed, at Pho 999, the descriptions approach being nearly complete recipes, lacking only the cooking times and amounts required of each ingredient.
Thus, the Pho Bo Vien – beef meatball pho – is a “beef broth with beef meatball, rice noodles, onions, cilantro and scallions, served with a side of Thai basil, bean sprouts and lime.” The pho banh nuoc is “plain pho” (as if pho is ever actually plain!), described as “rice noodles with onion, cilantro, scallion and your choice of broth – beef, chicken or veggie.”
Pho do bien is seafood noodle pho – a longtime favorite of mine, and not found in nearly enough pho shops – “shrimp, crab meat, fish ball, and squid, with Thai basil, bean sprouts and lime.” There’s pho ga – chicken pho. Dac bid xe lua – beef combo pho. Thai chin – rare steak and brisket pho. Pho tom – shrimp pho. Tai – rare steak pho.
And bun ho hue Vietnamese spicy noodles – described as “a spicy Vietnamese beef noodle soup, containing rice vermicelli, beef shank, cooked pork blood, pork sausage and pig feet, garnished with lemon, bean sprouts, basil leaves and sauces.”
The pho rau dau hu is veggie pho with tofu, for those who truly want their pho as simple as could be. Though simplicity, as ever, is a matter of perspective. This is still a soup packed with tastiness and crunch.
14650 Roscoe Blvd., Panorama City; 818-810-5959, https://vietkitchens.com
At Viet Kitchen, you pay your money, and you take your choice.
Go to the section headed “Pho Rice Noodle Soups,” and you’ll find that if you want the beef pho, you can get a small for $10.15, or a large for $11.75, in both cases a mix of “pure beef broth with rice noodles and a choice of meat – eye round, brisket, flank steak, tendon and tripe.”
We’re also told that “all noodle soups are served with a side of bean sprouts lime, jalapeños, basil, hoisin sauce, Sriracha hot sauce and chili paste.”
Those who don’t want beef can choose the chicken pho, which is still served in beef broth. But in this case the protein is chicken white meat. So in two sizes.
But of course, there’s more – from appetizers to noodle salad, from rice dishes to banh mi sandwiches. I find that nothing more is needed with the pho than an appetizer or three. Perhaps the egg roll with pork, shrimp, carrot, taro, glass noodles and mixed vegetables. Or the spring roll with shrimp, tofu, grilled beef and grilled pork wrapped in rice paper.
The chicken wings come with Sriracha mayo, Korean barbecue or pepper and salt. There are shrimp chips, pot stickers and – more than a little surprising – cream cheese wontons and sweet potato fries.Which seems to me to have wandered in from another restaurant.
For the record, there are also Viet Kitchens in Madison, Wisconsin; London, England; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – where I’ll bet the cream cheese wontons are little known. But then, what do I know?
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected].