Final Pho, Semi-Final: Pho Thanh Lich vs. Pho Quang Trung

Photo by the Elmo Monster
Pho Than Lich's beautiful bowl
Here we are: the semifinals; the Final Pho. Sixteen of Orange County's finest pho shops have been whittled down to four. The winner of today's matchup will face the winner of the Pho Thanh Lich vs. Pho Quang Trung match on Friday in the championship to declare the finest (pho-nest?) pho in Orange County.

Gustavo: This review has my byline, but let's start with Edwin's take first, as I'm still shell-shocked by the upset of the tournament: Brodard Chateau's NINE-DOLLAR DAMN PHO over old-school Pho Nguyen Hue. Sigh . . . it happens. Take it, Edwin!

Edwin: Why it's taken me this long to return to Pho Thanh Lich, I don't know. But I'm glad it won Shuji's match-up because among all the pho joints on our list, this was the one I was rooting for. And how is it possible the prices have gone down since I last came? With its $2.99 Happy Hour prices for pho that lasts to practically closing, Pho Thanh Lich is the reason anyone would rightly scoff at the existence of $8 or $9 pho. The economics just doesn't make sense: Here is a full meal that not only feeds you, but also fills your soul for the price of a tiny fast-food sub sandwich.

The room smells of the sour tang of dried mops, mildewed dish rags and sweat. There are what appear to be Christmas garlands left up from holidays long forgotten. A tired, droopy-eyed old woman doesn't even bother with the niceties, her demeanor as no-nonsense as the bowls that come out of the kitchen. She drops the menu in front of you as if she's tossing a bone to a dog. She jots down your order quickly without any acknowledgment that you're a paying customer. There's a 50-cent charge for ice water. The water, you think to yourself, has to be $5 per glass before you even spend half the amount you'd have to shell out at Brodard Chateau.

Around you, like-minded thrifty souls gather, the restaurant filling up the later it gets. Here, like nowhere else, there's the feeling of community among strangers, a shared experience of something good, something special: the pho.

The unspoken kinship among us is communicated by slurps. All conversation, no matter how riveting, stops. All you hear from table after table is the noisy sound of soup being sipped, noodles being Hoovered. All you see are heads bowed and bobbing, sucking up strands of white with in-between breaks to dab a runny nose here, the beading sweat of the brow there.

Here is pho as pho is meant to be. Jaded have I been with lesser bowls, bowls that did nothing but leave me with pho-tigue. Thanh Lich's soup is a wondrous elixir of clearness, ladled out from vats as tall as a desk chair, a pot simmered long and slow, inside a liquid lovingly looked after. It's poured scalding onto the clumped mound of noodles at a palate-singing temperature. Deep is the flavor, a tang, a freshness, a beef juice diluted to a brew as invigorating to slurp as the beach air is to breathe.

The whole bowl worked and told the story of beef, with the broth the constant narrator and the cuts of cattle, from the very tender to the very, very tender, an indispensable character list of protagonists. Tai, rare steak, just melts. The tendons get boiled down to gel similar to aspic. And for once, the tripe tasted as tripe should taste, some of its barnyard stink still distinguishable, to let you know that you're not dreaming. The toppings, they almost don't really matter anymore. Bean sprouts, the saw-tooth herb, basil, lemon and jalapeño--they become chatter, noise, interruptions to a symphony that already has the harmony in place, with no superfluous instruments needed. And for once, the soup doesn't inhibit the kind of thirst most pho does, an indicator of its uncompromising pedigree and lack of MSG, a known and oft-abused shortcut.

At Pho Quang Trung, the pho is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Photo by the Elmo Monster
Pho Quang Trung's rendition

Its reputation built from its chicken pho, a soul-soothing soup with slices of hen laid in pristine white flotillas on top of broth, Quang Trung has a full soup-to-nuts Vietnamese menu. Saturdays, the clipboard waiting list gets long, and the entryway is jammed full of people trying to get out from the cold. Once seated, you're in the bustle of it. The hum of activity and the constant turnover of food reminds me of the busiest dim sum joints in San Gabriel on Sundays right after church gets out.

A front-desk bell is continuously rung to herald that the next order's ready to be picked up and delivered. This bell is rather redundant, as there's always a steady stream of dishes coming out of the kitchen. There's not a second when you aren't seeing a never-ending parade of pho in sloshing bowls, the occasional rice dish and crisp-skinned cha gio stacked like logs. The place is elegant by Little Saigon standards, certainly more hospitable than the cave-like dank and darkness of Pho Thanh Lich, which can be safely called a "dive" without anyone there taking offense. Pho Quang Trung is not a dive. You can bring your grandma here, as well as the grandkids. The track lighting and the fresh paint job make everything bright and perky. I saw that my special pho, stocked with the entire meat arsenal, has a broth of an amber tint.

A sip reveals it's not as rich or as deeply beef-flavored as that at Pho Thanh Lich, but somehow it's also a bit more savory. I could swear to the presence of fish sauce, however imperceptible its scent. Another noticeable difference: the fat bubbles that normally skitters the surface of a good pho broth are finer than Thanh Lich's, indicating how much lighter the liquid is. The noodles here are fresher than Thanh Lich, loosely flowing like windblown hair. There's no need to prod and poke. The rare beef called tai is tender, but on this day, I notice it's a little less so than Thanh Lich's. The tripe, cut into frilly, goose-pimpled fingers the delicateness of lace are crunchy and have less of the barnyard funk I tasted at Thanh Lich. But the star of the bowl turned out to be the meatballs. Chewy, springy, peppery, sliced into the shape and thickness of a poker chip, these tapioca-starch-and-beef-purée orbs are resilient with as much bounce as a SuperBall.

Overall, a hard decision, but my vote goes to Pho Thanh Lich.

After the jump, Gustavo's choice and the winner!

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