Flavor to savor at Pho Saigon
Worth the trip
By Nicholas Franklin 09/26/2013
826 N. Ventura Road
As soon as a big steaming bowl of Pho Saigon’s house specialty beef soup is set in front of you, the savory vapor that curls up to your face suggests it’s ready to consume. But don’t ignore the plate of accoutrements; grab some holy basil and tear some leaves into the hot broth, and then add a hearty helping of sprouts and jalapeños, a squeeze of lime, and finish it off with some hoisin and sriracha—fresh aromas of chilis, beef, citrus and faint licorice (star anise) will set you on a race to the bottom of the bowl.
It wasn’t until going on Yelp and scrolling through top-rated restaurants in the area that I came across Pho Saigon. Unless you work at the Navy base, have relatives in Port Hueneme or don’t mind driving there for a south swell, why would anybody from elsewhere drive all that way? Well, visiting this restaurant, which boasts a four and a half star average from more than 250 people, is plenty good reason.
Immediately upon walking in you come to understand that Pho Saigon offers more of an eating experience than a dining experience. Servers 40 feet away hold menus in the air above empty tables to signal where you’ll sit. You order by number (unless you speak Vietnamese or don’t mind embarrassing yourself trying). Seabees dot the dining room with the blue and gray of their fatigues and finish their meals quickly. And the large, high-ceilinged room is a clean, pleasantly bright space that also happens to be great at conducting peak hour sound. All to say — you come here to eat.
To start off, you ought to consider the shrimp and pork spring rolls, which are fresh, crisp, and light—which makes for a great item to dip into the rich, peanut-laced hoisin while you wait for your entrees (or get lost in the menu). These are better than the fried wontons, which are stuffed with just a dab of meat, making them just a fried starch vessel for scooping up sweet and sour sauce.
On a first visit we went for polar opposites among the pho selections. The house special pho dac biet described earlier came with thin-sliced eye-of-round steak plus soft tendons and bible tripe. For the sake of foodie authority it’d be nice to claim to have been eating like Andrew Zimmern before Bizarre Foods was cool, but that’s just not true. So the busy, studded texture of the sliced tripe along with the meltingly soft tendons was a happy, beefy surprise along with the intense balance of hot and cool flavors.
But if you’d prefer to pass on the delicious scrap meat, the pho ga has only chicken meat cooked into the same deeply comforting and savory broth as the house special, a broth bolstered by abundant onions, cilantro and bok choy, plus whatever you add. Despite the lack of offal goodies, this bowl still offers the pho flavor and experience in a dish that’s more accessible. Other more widely accessible dishes include sautéed noodles and fried rice.
The bulk of the menu consists of broken rice plates, which are combos plate of sorts, with many combinations of meat and vegetables over fragmented white rice, plus egg cakes and/or tofu-skin-wrapped shrimp.
I went with the No. 44, which carries shredded pork, pork skin and fried chicken as the main components. Getting cozy with the crispy, thin, fried chicken was easy. Then I grabbed the pork skin, which was sliced so fine and long that it looked like noodles. After picking out a bite with chopsticks and thinking, “Wow, that’s one different noodle,” I remembered that, like the pho, you’re probably supposed to stir up and season this big plate of food.
Compared to the compartmentalized plating of Japanese food, or Western restaurants where there aren’t even salt and pepper on the table, adding your own spin and mixing everything is essential to hitting the metaphorical sweet spot, which is so easy to hit at Pho Saigon. A hit of hoisin, a pour of nuoc cham (sweetened and seasoned fish sauce), a dash of sambal chili paste and a good stir — and what was incomplete suddenly becomes an intensely savory and stimulating blend of freshly married flavors.
Pho Saigon is an ideal place to come if you’ve heard of pho but haven’t gotten around to trying it. The staff (which is family at its core) is remarkably friendly and willing to explain and describe the cuisine. It’s also a great place to come for those who grew up with this food, as the majority of patrons already know. With an 82-item menu that pleases, whether the thought of a mouthful of bible tripe makes you hungry or queasy, a trip down Harbor or Pleasant Valley to check out this sliver of Vietnam proves more than worth it.