Final Pho Round 1: AnQi vs. Benley
In an earlier review of the place, I summarized Benley as a Vietnamese restaurant for the non-Vietnamese. I even went so far as to warn anyone who was otherwise familiar with the culinary terrain and back alleyways of Little Saigon to stop reading lest they do a spit-take on their computer screen when I revealed that the place charges $8.95 for a bowl of pho.
Benley, you see, is the kind of restaurant that would slice its spring rolls on the bevel and stand them upright, catering to customers who might think it's a smart thing to do. Though it's located in a deserted shopping center in the hinterlands of Long Beach, where it skims Los Alamitos, it uses dinnerware that looks like a showcase for Mikasa. Its servers speak perfect English.
This is not to say that the place isn't great. It is. I've had many a wonderful dishes there, like the braised short rib on mashed avocado, a tender-as-sin hunk of meat slow-braised to be anise-scented. Stay tuned this week for a review of their fried cuttlefish. But the pho? Until now, on general principle, I just couldn't bring myself to order it. Why spend $9 to get one bowl at Benley when I could go elsewhere and get two?
The same goes for AnQi, which is even less a Vietnamese restaurant than Raya at the Ritz is a Mexican one. That it now dabbles with molecular gastronomy and levies upward of $160 per person for dishes sous-vide and foamed-up pulls the restaurant farther from its roots than ever before. It's squarely in Achatz-Adria territory these days, but even before this, its dinner menu was only vaguely Asian. However, it still serves its $9 pho for lunch in its main dining room, or until 5:30 p.m. on weekdays (6:30 p.m. on weekends) at its walk-up noodle bar.
The two phos, then, seems equally matched--in the same weight class if you're measuring by the price charged.
When I finally tried Benley's pho, I was surprised to discover it does it quite reverentially. The plate of roughage is basic and rudimentary: lime, slightly dried-out jalapeño slices and Thai basil. A preportioned amount of hoisin and Sriracha is squirted into saucers. But the kitchen takes the extra step of snipping the ends off the bean sprouts, a nice touch that shows it cares about the details.
The broth begins a light caramel color, then quickly gets murky as the generously portioned thin slices of steak (one of three options of beef) bleeds and coagulates in it. Onions are sliced to a parchment paper's thinness, scallions chopped small as beads. Both float and decorate a broth that sips rocket-hot but noticeably oily. Despite the oiliness, it's in the soup that Benley's strength lies. Benley's is an elixir light on anise, but heavy on beefiness. In fact, it is so rich it's safe to call it unctuous. The aroma and depth will satisfy a carnivore as if he's eating a rare hunk of steak. The chicken pho, by the way, is similarly meat-driven, with a surplus of sublimely soft dark and white chunks of hen that could amount to half a bird's worth.
Benley's noodles, however, begin clumped in a tight dome stuck to the bottom of the bowl until you rouse them with your chopsticks--a sign they're portioned out this way until someone orders a bowl. As a result, in the slurping, they become a little on the soft side of overdone.
AnQi's pho noodles, by contrast, are loose and vibrant, the perfect level of doneness, with just the slightest amount of pull. The broth, however, is more salty than rich and seems to have a bouillon-like cleanliness and lighter presence on the tongue instead of the slow-simmered beef-bone depths and funk I got from Benley's soup. Scallions are bias cut; onions are thick-sliced but thankfully already tamed. The beef is cut thickly into geometrically uniform, near-perfect rectangles, all pieces tidy, lean and tender. Like Benley, AnQi provides a dipping sauce of Sriracha and a hoisin-like sauce presented in a saucer, while the stem of basil provided had few leaves to pluck. It also must be noted the kitchen here doesn't bother to groom the bean sprouts in the same manner as Benley's.
WINNER: Benley, which now goes to the next round. However, AnQi's pho is much improved since I had it last, during the first few weeks of its opening.
Benley: A Vietnamese Kitchen, 8191 E. Wardlow, Long Beach, (562) 596-8130.
AnQi By Crustacean, 3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-5679; www.anqibistro.com.
Pho Dakao vs. Kim Loan; winner: Pho Dakao