Nha Trang: Onward and Pho-ward

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Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 11:30 AM

click to enlarge Bun Rieu at Nha Trang - G. SNYDER
  • G. Snyder
  • Bun Rieu at Nha Trang
When San Gabriel's Nha Trang opened a larger shop in nearby Monterey Park earlier this year, it was cause for excitement. While the original location was celebrated for its deeply flavored, complex versions of Central Vietnamese soups, it measured about the size of a doctor's waiting room, could seat fewer people than the average minivan and ran out of a good portion of its menu items well before most people had clocked out for their lunch break.

At its sleek new location in Monterey Park -- which used to be a passable Thai restaurant called Magic Noodle -- the waitresses are about 20 years younger, the music is decidedly hipper and louder, the tables at least 10 times more plentiful and the stock of fragrant soup sufficient to last until its twilight closing time. Nha Trang Part II, as it might be called, is a noodle shop for the modern era.

With progress, though, comes sacrifice. About half the menu, including the bright turmeric-yellow mì Quảng noodles, dropped from existence at both locations. There is still the murky bowl of spicy-sour bun bo hue, rice noodles in an amplified beef broth, stocked with pig's knuckle and bits of pork-blood pudding, and bun rieu, a tomato-based soup flavored with salty crab and airy meatballs that all but fall apart under a pair of chopsticks.

On a hot day, the bun bo xao is phenomenal. Those same pale noodles are served soupless and mixed with chopped cabbage, peanuts, cucumber and a succulent, sauteed beef so well-saturated with lemongrass that you can actually see tiny fibers poking out from the meat. You drizzle the bowl with shallot-infused fish sauce and crumble a handful of fried sesame crackers over the top.

There is pho ga, chicken noodle soup flecked with cilantro floating in a pure yellow broth redolent of good schmaltz, and a Vietnamese version of Hainan chicken rice, which is essentially the same boiled, bone-in chicken, served over sticky rice cooked in chicken stock and doused with an addictive ginger-sweetened fish sauce.

There is one soup addition since Nha Trang's expansion, though, and at first glance it looks to be the least exciting thing on the menu. The beef pho here is a far cry from the Saigon style that is common in this part of town; the fragrance of star anise is more intense and there is a mellow sweetness to the broth. There are slices of barely cooked brisket and delicate fluffy meatballs if you want them. The plate of herbs arrives with stalks of purple shiso and the hard-to-find herb called fishmint (it tastes like it sounds). Nha Trang's pho dac biet is worth the trip on its own, and now that a second location has made it even more accessible to eastward-traveling eaters, it seems that one of the best bowls of pho in the SGV just got even better.

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