One should be so lucky as to live surrounded by pho shops. If you live in the eastern part of Los Angeles County, east of Monterey Park, on the edge of the San Gabriel Valley, in the sleepy working-class town of El Monte — you'd think that Vietnamese pho restaurants had popped up like mushrooms. We had a discussion earlier after Jonathan Gold's LA Weekly article on those pho shops. I spoke with LA Times reporter Hector Becerra a few months ago about the traditions of pho and the hyper-entrepreneurial spirit and competition that's inherent in Vietnamese business owners.
Then I went to taste for myself. In one hour, I power tasted four (4) bowls of pho in South El Monte. They're all on Garvey Avenue. Drive east on the 10 freeway and exit on Rosemead in El Monte, take a right and then turn left at Garvey. The street is peppered with 10 pho shops for about a 3-mile-stretch. In the main, the basic pho was quite well crafted. I'd gladly eat on this street any time. Things that stood out included:
Multilingual menus — On the farthest edge, Viet Huong had the best quadralingual menu I'd ever seen in a Vietnamese restaurant. The Spanish translations were sophisticated and spot on, and so was the Vietnamese, Chinese, and English. This is the future of mult-culti America, folks. The soup wasn't the best of the lot, but the resto was clean. There were old Viet people eating there which was why I went in!
Pho Bac (nothern pho with filet) — Then I went to Pho Huynh and entered through the back door as many others do. It was dark and the ceiling low, nightclub like. The room was packed and rowdy with people slurping. Service there was rough and not particularly congenial. "What do you want?' were the waitress' first words. I asked about the dac biet pho Bac (special northern pho bowl) to see what all the hype was. (Gold had waxed eloquently about it.) "Have you ever eaten pho in Hanoi?" the gal asked. "It's made this way.This has filet, filet mignon."
"Yes, I have but they don't use filet mignon. They don't have that," I responded. She nodded and then asked me what I wanted to order. So I tried it and well, it's not like northern pho that I've had but it's a nice "new" version as was explained to me by a woman at Pho Minh down the street. The cooks on Garvey are taking filet and hand chopping it (like a cubed steak) and then putting it raw atop the noodles with a heavy dose of shredded ginger. Then they ladle the broth over it. It was good but not any more authentic than regular pho. By the time I got to Pho Filet, I'd eaten 2 bowls of filet mignon
northern pho. Despite the shop's name, I couldn't fathom another bite of filet. And all the ginger was overwhelming the other aromatics of the broth. So I cleansed my palate with an
old-fashioned bowl and Pho Filet's basic pho hit the spot.
In the olden days (at the earlier part of the 20th century), all you got in terms of pho was broth, noodles and cooked meat. In January 2004, that's what I was served in Hanoi, at a packed pho stall where we sat on tiny wooden benches and tables. The rare stuff was added much later on as people got their hands on more tender steak. If you've tasted such a filet rendition of pho in Hanoi, do let me know.
Hot bowls — All the shops served scalding hot bowls. Like blistering hot. I liked that. That's totally old school. My tongue paid dearly.
Ultra-low prices — I didn't pay more than $6.50 out the door for a bowl — that's with the filet and in the fancy Korean double-layered metal bowls that keep the broth hot. How do people survive? I don't know. But Hector Becerra's article today in the Los Angeles Times sheds some light on the struggles of one family — the Lam family — to make Pho Minh a success:
Pho Minh was the much-lauded pho shop in Jonathan Gold's LA Weekly piece. Westsiders innitially flocked to sleepy El Monte for the Lam's pho noodle soup. That tsunami of customers is hard to sustain and on the drizzly March afternoon when I was there, I was among 3 customers. The sound of the cook's cleaver hacking away at the filet mignon in the kitchen was clearly audible.
People who work this hard should charge more so that they can survive. Competition is great when it boosts quality but there's a limit. When is competition good and when does it work against you? How much would you pay for excellent, well-crafted pho? In the 'hood? Outside of the 'hood?