Pho Town: Noodle Stories From South El Monte
View more photographs of Garvey Avenue pho specialties in Anne Fishbein's slideshow.
Garvey Avenue, as it crosses the Rio Hondo into South El Monte, is where Asian redevelopment once went to die in the San Gabriel Valley, where the creaky trailer parks haven’t yet been leveled for malls, tortillerías still outnumber boba parlors, and the flat, harsh light makes the flood plain seem to stretch on into infinity. On the Rosemead side of the river, Garvey is a welter of Vietnamese restaurant plazas, giant Chinese supermarkets and swank dim sum rooms. On the South El Monte side, there are auto-body shops, liquor stores and used-car lots. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve driven down this stretch looking for places to have lunch — a Vietnamese restaurant boom seemed always just a few months away — only to return to the relative abundance of San Gabriel.
But in the past couple of years, while few people outside the community were paying attention, the mini-malls that had stalled in the last real estate crash finally eased into being, the itinerant tamale vendors found their customers outside Vietnamese grocery stores, and the streetscape began to be dominated by pho parlors, cafes specializing in the North Vietnam–style beef noodle soup — in some areas almost one per block. The omnipresent stink of muffler repair developed overtones of fish sauce and cinnamon. And South El Monte, which I hadn’t realized until last summer was even an independent city, was suddenly ground zero for the pho cult, home to 10 or so specialists, even slowing a bit with pho traffic on Saturday mornings.
If you visit the right place, a sunny coffeeshop-like restaurant called Pho Hien, you can even get your pho garnished with gristly chunks of ngau pin, boiled ox penis, a specialty advertised on bright-yellow signs above each table, although it is not listed on the menu as such. (Do I prefer the noodles at the nearby Pho Hien Mai, the restaurant run by the bitter ex-wife of the Pho Hien proprietor? I think I do, although despite the outer-space mural on the ceiling, Pho Hien Mai is by far the funkiest of the South El Monte joints. There is a tripey depth to the broth that I quite enjoy.)
In some senses, pho is a commodity — I’ve never had a bad bowl on Garvey, whether at the bustling Pho Hong Long or at the brand-new, full-service restaurant charmingly named Pho Kim V. (If I were a fifth-grader who knew that the word “pho” is pronounced “fuh,” I would never stop saying the name of that place.) I know that the pho I eat twice a month at Golden Deli in San Gabriel suffers from thin broth, slightly gummy noodles and enough sodium to cause hypertension in a boa constrictor, although my devotion to its superior cha gio, fried spring rolls, is enough to keep me going back. More serious connoisseurs consider the herb plate that always comes alongside pho, whether there are a few different kinds of basil or only the licoricey Vietnamese stuff, whether the bean sprouts are straight and fresh, or whether the basket contains the essential sawtooth herb, which should be torn into small pieces and allowed to steep in the broth only a few seconds before you crunch it down. Some people prefer firm noodles; others like them soft, almost gooey. My personal criterion is the broth, which should be rich and dense with the gelatin of long-boiled beef bones, should have a touch of distinct caramelized sweetness from the traditional charred ginger and onion, and should be sharply flavored with herbs.
Purists tend to go for the pho bac, the Hanoi-style pho, made with wider, slitherier rice noodles, that was the original version of the dish before it was jazzed up with tripe, brisket, tendon and rare flank steak by Saigon pleasure-seekers 70 years ago, a pure broth speckled with a few scallions. (Pho dac biet, pho with a bit of everything, is the usual order.)
And by purist standards, the pho bac at Pho Minh is clearly the finest in town, a limpid, full-flavored broth, sprinkled with slivered fresh ginger and fortified with a delicious hunk of meat that looks something like a filet mignon that had just lost a bad razor fight, a delicate broth compelling enough to make the usual add-in seasonings of basil, lime and fresh-sliced chiles seem almost unnecessary. The broth is deeply scented with Vietnamese cinnamon, which is the best in the world — or at least that’s what the guy at Penzey’s says when he’s charging me an extra buck for it. The pho dac biet is great too, although it seems almost vulgar in comparison.
But then you walk a block to the splendid Pho Huynh, whose pleasantly gamy pho broth is probably bumped up to 11 with various enhancements, and it’s like hearing Chuck Berry after listening to Mozart string quintets, crude but wild, a pho that wants you to dance. And you have to contemplate the pho bac at Pho Filet, the restaurant that jump-started the whole filet mignon/pho bac thing locally, which is crazy-sharp with cloves, and has an epic version of bun dac biet, a kind of grilled-meat-intensive noodle salad, to boot.
Still, we all know how these expeditions go, the ones that evaluate a broad spectrum of restaurants all serving basically the same thing. Many places are visited. A set of criteria is established. Exactly one of them is found to be divine, although the formula allows a faintly recommended runner-up or two, and its aesthetic, applied retrospectively, becomes the standard the other restaurants all fail to live up to. Is Pho Minh the equivalent of Bob’s doughnuts, Mozza’s pizza or Philippe’s French dip? I submit that it is.
Pho Filet, 9463 E. Garvey Ave., Unit A, South El Monte, (626) 453-8911. Pho Hien, 9911 Garvey Ave., South El Monte, (626) 575-1949 or www.phohienrestaurant.com. Pho Hien Mai, 9805 Garvey Ave., South El Monte, (626) 575-2722. Pho Hong Long, 10012 Garvey Ave., South El Monte, (626) 350-3909. Pho Huynh, 9706 Garvey Ave., South El Monte, (626) 350-6688. Pho Kim V, 9663 Garvey Ave., South El Monte, (626) 542-9555. Pho Minh, 9646 E. Garvey Ave., No. 108, South El Monte, (626) 448-8807.
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