In some parts of Los Angeles, Vietnamese noodle shops are as thick on the ground here as they are in Hanoi, and a bowl of pho, the northern Vietnamese dish of slithery rice noodles, fragrant beef broth and leafy herbs, is as easy to find as a Big Mac. Orange County is a center of Vietnamese noodles, of course, especially the pho-rich precincts of Westminster, Santa Ana and Garden Grove. The Vietnamese areas of Rosemead and San Gabriel are brimming with the stuff. Pho has even made it out to a dozen late-night dives in Koreatown, where it is savored by Koreans as a complexly spiced alternative to sul long tang, Koreas bland, satisfying version of beef noodle soup.
But until recently, the Westside was as lacking in pho (pronounced fuh) as it is in certain other necessities of 21st-century Los Angeles life, such as soup dumplings, natural-charcoal Korean barbecue, or really great taco trucks. Sure, there was the pho meted out at the Noodle Planet in Westwood, which is maybe the 95th best thing on the huge, Thai-Chinese menu, as well as the diner in the media district of Culver City whose noodles reminded me of the Vietnamese food I had in southern Wisconsin. A couple of other places Ive visited serve carefully made yet denatured versions of pho, clearly concocted for locals who might fear squishy additions like tripe and tendon, not to mention herbs that havent yet appeared in products manufactured by Campbells. Last year, I made a screeching U-turn into the parking lot of a Westside establishment that appeared to advertise 24-hour pho, only to discover that the shop in question was in the business of developing film.
So I was fairly ecstatic when I wandered into Pho Bac Huynh, a slick, cheerful place -- the sister of a well-regarded noodle shop in Westminster -- tucked into a Brentwood mini-mall next to the Japanese soba house Mishima. As in the pho joints in Orange County, many of the customers at noon seemed to be surgically bonded with their cell phones; plates on most tables were heaped with cilantro, bean sprouts and a few different varieties of Asian basil, the classic Vietnamese garnishes for pho. Cinnamon, anise and the funk of simmering beef, the soups unmistakable signature, perfumed the air. This is the real thing, in a location where you would be more likely to find a Subway.
There are plenty of Vietnamese chain restaurants, of course, and some of them (I like Pho 79) rank among the best noodle shops in Los Angeles. At the mom n pop pho restaurants I tend to love best, the broth can change from day to day, sometimes with the cinnamon predominating and sometimes scented most strongly with burnt shallots; sometimes rich and sometimes overly flavored with the chalky essence of unroasted beef bones. Consomme, like bread, is essentially a living thing, reflecting hundreds of variables, both environmental and technical, involved in the physical process of its manufacture, and like bread, it changes from day to day.
But the broth at Pho Bac Huynh is as totally consistent as a Whopper, vibrating with the flavors of roasted beef and star anise; the noodles are properly slippery; the selection of herbs in the table salad seems consistent from month to month. The slices of beef brisket in the deluxe version of the soup are roasted almost black, always; the tendon is slightly chewy; and the slices of raw beef that cook in the heat of the stock are predictably paper-thin. The restaurant may do pho-by-numbers here, but it isnt a bad bowl of soup.
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A lot of the menu at Pho Bac Huynh barely passes muster. The filling for the fried spring rolls, cha gio, is dense, overemulsified; inexpert frying leaves the capsules oily, leaden and dull. The com tam, broken rice, should be as springy as al dente pasta, but has been cooked into paste each of the times Ive tried it. The Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk, normally brought to the table still oozing in thick drops from individual filters, is as insipid as the stuff you get in boba shops.
Still, the bun, a cool rice-noodle dish with ground peanuts, herbs, and things like grilled shrimp, fried spring rolls or grilled pork is pretty good -- you toss it yourself, with fish sauce and sriracha chile, like a salad -- and the bi cuon, cool rice-paper rolls stuffed with vegetables, wispy vermicelli and a typically Vietnamese concoction of sliced pigskin and toasted rice powder, are refreshing, tightly packed, fine.
Pho Bac Huynh may be more or less an attempt to mate the virtues of an old-fashioned noodle shop with the streamlined efficiency of a fast-food operation, and everything from the glossy four-color menus to the slickly prefab seating, the blandness of the fish sauce to the precise number of bean sprouts meted out with a bowl of noodles, seems to have been charted, focus-group tested and run through a panel of MBAs. You can order either in Vietnamese or in English. You can log on to an Internet menu (www.phobachuynh.com) and have the noodles delivered to the office. You can even open a Pho Bac Huynh of your own, if you are so inclined -- franchise information is included on the takeout menu and on the Web site. In most parts of town, you could do worse.
11819 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 477-9379. Open daily 11 a.m.--10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10--$15. AE, MC, V. Validated lot parking. Delivery. Recommended dishes: bi cuon, pho, bun tom thit nuong.