It's a little unfair how Vietnamese beef soup is dispersed in L.A.: Too many outlets in the San Gabriel Valley, and too few anywhere west of the 10/710 interchange. Indeed, South El Monte's Garvey Avenue is to phở as Sawtelle Boulevard is to ramen: You probably can make a best-of list based just on this boulevard of phở alone.
The best phở have similar characteristics: Slippery but firm rice noodles. A hot, beefy broth laced with cloves, cinnamon and charred ginger. Fine meat that stands up to the broth. A wild forest of herbs and bean sprouts, served on the side. Surely at some point the law of entropy will prevail and L.A. will see more phở joints that focus less on bad puns and pale broths and more on simple, strong bowls of phở. Until -- or even if -- it gains a foothold in L.A. proper, these 10 places for phở will do.
10. Phở Hoa:
There might not be any restaurant in Chinatown as sticky as Phở Hoa, a somewhat dark Vietnamese restaurant at the northern edge of Spring Street where cement meets courtyard before heading back out onto Alameda toward Homegirl Cafe. And yet, many a Vietnamese kid in Los Angeles has been to Phở Hoa at least once; it's almost as reliable as Phở 79, albeit a bit more one-dimensional. That said, it is one of the better bowls of phở this side of Alhambra. 818 N. Spring St., L.A.; (213) 485-0074.
Upon first blush, Nong Lá's modern décor is reminiscent of other Vietnamese restaurants that try, to varying degree of success, to make the simple bowl of phở hip enough for the L.A. crowd. But the bún bò Huế on the menu here should tip you off that this isn't your hipster neighbor's Vietnamese fix. It is, rather, a very good answer -- finally! -- to the many laments about the dearth of solid Vietnamese options in L.A. proper. The broth in the phở (and in the bún bò Huế) may be a bit lighter than most in the SGV, and the phở đặc biệt doesn't include tendon, but these are minor quibbles. It's a clean broth that can be readily dressed up with the thick sauces lined up on the table like squeeze bottles of paint. And, hey, there is tripe. On this side of town, you could do far, far worse. 2055 Sawtelle Blvd., L.A.; (310) 268-1881.
Diep Tran's Highland Park invention is a Vietnamese joint mashed up with a modern-day diner, which makes the homey, humble bowl of phở an oddly perfect dish to be served between these exposed brick walls. The soup here comes in two stripes, one for those on the perpetual hunt for a decent bowl of phở ga (chicken phở) and one for those who like the idea of phở but for the meat. That vegetarian phở is particularly strong, well ahead of other attempts to make a vegetarian version of this traditionally beefy soup. Both are especially restorative on days when you feel under the weather. And where else can you have delicious french fries as a side to your phở? 110 N. Avenue 56, Highland Park; (323) 257-8980.
Turn the page for picks 7 through 5...
On one side of Sepulveda Boulevard, in a small, crowded plaza, is Phở 999. Almost directly opposite, next to a 99 Ranch and its requisite large, crowded parking lot, is Phở So 1. And so the arguments begin: Some swear that Phở 999 is better than Phở So 1; others insist the opposite is true. But unless you really have a very strong allegiance to one or the other, where you end up likely will depend on whether you need to go to 99 Ranch anyway, or what side of the street you happen to be on when the mood for phở strikes. If we really had to split hairs, Phở So 1 might be a tad better. Worth navigating around Sepulveda if Phở 999 is just a right turn away? Probably not. Phở So 1, 6450 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 989-6377; Phở 999, 6411 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys (818) 782-1999.
5. Golden Deli:
Golden Deli may no longer have the best phở in town, but it nonetheless still is one of the best places to go, especially for the phở novice: It's guaranteed to be comfortably hectic most days, the servers are not as brusque here as they are at other places (read: they don't ask for your order the nanosecond after you sit down) and most of the options -- especially the đặc biệt, with its medley of brisket, tendon and tripe -- are fine, basic introductions to the wonderfully nuanced world of Vietnamese beef noodle soups. And while it no longer holds the trophy for the best phở, it probably still can keep its title for the best Vietnamese egg rolls in town. Outside your mother's kitchen, of course. 815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 308-0803.
Keep reading for number 4 on...
4. Phở 79:
Phở 79 is a stalwart of phở restaurants, the one chain that is as reliable as your Honda Civic taking you from Point A to Point B. As such, you won't find anything particularly surprising or fancy here -- no tenderized pieces of filet mignon instead of brisket, no impressive mountains of herbs and bean sprouts, no showstopping egg rolls -- only consistently great phở in a comfortable setting. If Point A is a craving for phở, and Point B is that craving sated, you can come to Phở 79 and reach your destination in no time. 29 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra; (626) 289-0239.
3. Noodle Guy:
With the intense concentration of phở restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, a few restaurants are finding ways to distinguish themselves from the fray. Witness, for example, Noodle Guy, which seems to be determined to be the one duck that is not like the others in every possible way, from its chunky Super Mario-meets-manga font to its sleek interior to its decision to offer kobe beef in the soup. At first, putting such a juicy, luxurious cut of meat in a bowl of hot beef broth seems downright wrong, even a waste. But, like asking Tina Fey to rap a few lines at the end of your track, this seemingly terrible idea actually works: Rather than drowning the beef as you might expect, the broth and the meat dance a delicate tango, and the result is an entirely different phở experience. The kobe beef bowl is a few dollars more than the other soups, and certainly more than most are accustomed to paying, but on a day you can spend as much coin on a bowl of phở as you might spend on a bowl of ramen, it will be money well spent. 1257 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 284-1868.
2. Phở Huynh:
The menu at Phở Huynh screams phở bac -- literally. Not only is it the first item on the menu, it is printed in type a few point sizes bigger than the rest of the phở options. Bury the lede, it does not. Phở bac is northern-style phở, which uses flatter, wider noodles than its southern (and more prevalent) counterpart, and has a light, clean broth that probably shouldn't need much more than a squeeze of lime, if that. Phở Huynh's version is excellent, and the tender filet mignon holds up well. Beyond phở bac, the menu reads like a great A1 column: Everything after the lede is just as good. 9706 Garvey Ave. South El Monte; (626) 350-6688.
And for our top pick...
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1. Phở Filet:The star of Phở Filet, as you may guess, is its filet mignon, which comes as standard in most of the restaurant's bowls of phở. The filet mignon's immensely popular co-star is the phở bac; it is, unlike Phở Huynh's version, a distinctly gingered affair, with very pronounced hits of cloves in each slurp. It is absolutely delicious, though because it is rather strong, a purist may prefer the lighter version over at Phở Huynh's. Good thing, then, that Phở Filet's southern-style phở is equally superb. Try the phở tai (phở with thin slices of filet mignon) and ask for the meat on the side so you can leisurely add it in your scalding hot, slightly sweet, deeply flavorful broth to cook as you please. It will be a soul-satisfying meal. 9463 E. Garvey Ave., South El Monte; (626) 453-8911.
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