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 ... was suddenly ground zero for the pho cult, home to 10 or so specialists, even slowing a bit with pho traffic on Saturday mornings.
December 09, 2008
In Friday's Los Angeles Times, Hector Becerra wrote about the troubles of 22-year-old restaurateur Eric Lam and Lam's fellow purveyors of the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. The article, titled online "South El Monte Eatery has Oodles of Noodles, but Few Diners," describes a large part of the problem this way:
"One reason for Lam's lack of business becomes apparent when you walk outside his restaurant. Pho Minh is one of 10 noodle houses that dot an otherwise unremarkable span of Garvey Avenue, making it the pho capital of Los Angeles County.
"Lam ticks off the names of his competition: Pho Hong Long, Pho Huynh, Pho Hien, Pho Hien Mai, Pho Hue, My Hanh, Pho Huong, Pho Kim V and Pho Filet. 'Whoa,' he said. 'That's a lot of pho.' "
Later in the story, Becerra writes:
"Then, in December, Lam caught a break. Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant reviewer for L.A. Weekly, proclaimed Garvey Avenue "ground zero" for the pho cult.
"He praised several of the eateries, but reserved his raves for Lam.
" 'Exactly one of them is found to be divine,' he wrote. 'Is Pho Minh the equivalent of Bob's doughnuts, Mozza's pizza or Philippe's French Dip? I submit that it is.'
"The Saturday after the article, Lam's restaurant was nearly packed. Some customers suggested to Lam that he should relocate downtown or to the Westside, where there would be less competition.
"About 75% of the people I saw that first day asked me if I saw the article," Lam said. "It built up my ego a little. I thought, 'They will come now.' ...
"Though Lam still has good days, four months after Gold's review, his restaurant is almost never packed with customers, not even on weekends."
This weekend, we're happy to note that Pho Minh was busy again thanks to its second media bump. Commenter "happycat" on Chowhound reported:
"Got there 12:45, the joint was jumpin'. There were people waiting for a table, the staff couldn't clean tables fast enough, and people kept coming in. [Eric Lam] and the staff were literally running, faces flushed, looking flustered and happy and dazed as they struggled to keep up. When [Lam] took my name, I joked that a lot of people must've read the Times this morning. He smiled, a little uncertainly. 'I didn't expect this,' he said."
Let's hope that this time the crowds stick around. And if business improves to the point that you have to wait for a table, note that Pho Minh isn't the only place in the neighborhood to get your pho. Read Jonathan Gold's original review, "Pho Town: Noodle Stories From South El Monte," for a rundown of some of the other places in L.A.'s pho zone.
Here's a list of the pho restaurants Gold reviewed:
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.
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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.