San Gabriel may be the center of Shanghainese cooking in the Los Angeles area, and Monterey Park the location of grand Cantonese restaurants. Alhambra is home to Noodleville, that section of Valley Boulevard crowded with multi-ethnic Asian noodle shops with names like Noodle City, Noodle Planet and Noodle World, loud, bright cafes that might serve pho and chow fun and soba instead of hamburgers and malts, but share more of their DNA with teenage hangouts like Ed Debevic’s and Johnny Rockets than with Yabu or Dumpling Master. Restaurants in Noodleville feature loud music instead of plaintive tunes, have elaborate dessert counters, and serve the noodles of half a dozen countries, all more or less adjusted to the chili-fearing Hong Kong taste. Noodleville is young and a little bit racy — you‘ll see more souped-up Japanese sports cars in the area than in the rest of the county put together — and you are never more than 100 yards from a place to buy a Hello Kitty notebook or a glass of boba tea.
Brodard Restaurant II is the little sister of a phenomenally successful Vietnamese noodle shop tucked away in Garden Grove, famous for its crab and pork soup, for its clay-pot rice and for a special kind of roasted pork meatball wrapped into a roll with noodles and a single scallion. But although its menu is completely Vietnamese, the Alhambra Brodard may be less a Westminster-style restaurant — all shiny surfaces, potted plants, and Vietnamese crooners — than it is a citizen of Noodleville, crowds lined up to get milk tea and kiwi snow bubbles at the Lollycup boba counter up front, music blasting almost at nightclub volumes.
You see elderly Vietnamese women at Brodard, conical rice-farmer hats placed carefully on the chair next to them; families passing around big platters of fried spring rolls; teenagers sucking down big bowls of hu tieu so rapidly that the spacy-looking, transparent rice noodles appear to have encountered a black hole. In the mornings, ancient regulars nurse cups of strong coffee as they gaze almost worshipfully up at the young hotties in low-rise tights writhing in the techno videos that seem always to be playing on the three big-screen TVs mounted high on the rear wall of the cafe. At night, you run the risk of the Bee Gees.
If you have eaten most of your Vietnamese meals in Chinatown pho joints, the menu at Brodard may seem a little unfamiliar at first. You can get pho, of course, the famous northern beef-noodle soup that is probably as ubiquitous at Vietnamese noodle parlors as cheeseburgers are at American coffee shops, but it seems somehow beside the point here. The broth is a little chalky, as if it were made with more bones than meat; the slices of rare flank steak and brisket are a little gristly; the ribbons of tripe and tendon can be more chewy than flavorful.
Many of the best dishes at Brodard are process-oriented in the manner of a lot of Vietnamese food, savory ingredients grilled or fried or baked, served ready to be wrapped in romaine into little green burritos with handfuls of fresh Vietnamese herbs, marinated carrots, chiles and bean sprouts, little essays in the crunch of fresh vegetables and the sharp pungency of Asian herbs; small studies in the keys of mint, garlic and spice to be dipped in bowls of sweet nuoc cham, Vietnamese fish sauce.
You will probably want to try the banh khot here, baked rice-batter cakes shaped like tiny fruit tarts, stained yellow with turmeric, dusted with powdered shrimp and studded with a single fresh shrimp apiece, crunchy on the outside, gooey at the center and absolutely addictive. The banh xeo — “fried pizza style,” says the menu — are big Yellow Submarine–ish crepes made from the same batter, folded around a pile of bean sprouts and fried, but they can be kind of bland.
And Brodard is a great place to try hu tieu, like transparent linguine served in clear Vietnamese broth, sometimes garnished in the style of Thailand (hot and sweet), Cambodia (funky) or Trieu Chau (sluiced with fried shallots), but always stretchy, delicate, fine.
Bun cha Hanoi, a variation on a familiar noodle dish I had never seen before, involves charcoal-grilled bits of pork and a couple of grilled pork meatballs in a sweet, well-garlicked sort of jus, served with thin mats of pale banh hoi noodles, piles of the usual herbs, and Vietnamese rice crackers that look like sesame-studded papadum, explosively delicious when wrapped in leaves of romaine and dunked a second time into the jus. You may have to sit through a lot of Fatboy Slim videos, but one thing about Noodleville — you usually eat pretty well.
647 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 281-1840. Open Wed.–Mon., 8:30 a.m.–10 p.m. MC, V. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8–$14. Recommended dishes: banh khot; nem nuong; bun cha Hanoi.