Pho Thanh Lich, Final Pho Get the Good Food Treatment


Pho Thanh Lich continued its victory lap this weekend as the best pho in Orange County. Following its victory in the Final Pho, I also reviewed it for KCRW-FM 89.9's Good Food with Evan Kleiman. Look for a review of the place in our dead-tree issue...soon. In the meanwhile, enjoy the clip!

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Final Pho CHAMPIONSHIP: Pho Thanh Lich vs. Brodard Chateau

Categories: Final Pho
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Pho Thanh Lich: Il capo di tutti capi of pho in Orange County, ready to face down ANY challenger
This is it--the final to our epic 16-team Final Pho. Dozens of pho bowls slurped to determine which is the best pho in Orange County. The championship match took place between the favorite, Pho Thanh Lich, and an unlikely finalist: Brodard Chateau. Now, the drama--or, rather, lack of.

"So we're all in agreement that Pho Thanh Lich is the winner?" Dave asked Edwin and I as we sat at Pho Thanh Lich.

We hadn't even placed our final order for the Westminster dive, yet we all agreed. It was a foregone conclusion; its competitor, Brodard Chateau, only made it into the final because it beat a weak field, then pulled off a massive upset in the semifinal by beating old warhorse Pho Nguyen Hue, which committed a John Capilari-esque choke. AHHHHH . . . anyhoo, we all agreed Brodard Chateau is a fine restaurant, but not for pho. Its pho is overpriced, underseasoned and ultimately forgettable. That, of course, isn't the case for Pho Thanh Lich. And just in case we were deluding ourselves, we brought in a guest judge: Fat Dude on a Diet blogger Niyaz Pirani.

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

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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.

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Final Pho, Semi-Final Round: Pho Nguyen Hue vs. Brodard Chateau

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Pho Nguyen Hue's chicken pho
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 (phoniest?) pho in Orange County.

It took several visits to decide on the winner of this round. Shuji and I argued back and forth via e-mail for days; major legislation has passed Congress without the amount of debate we put in over two bowls of noodle soup.

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Final Pho, Round 2: Pho 86 vs. Pho Quang Trung

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Pho Quang Trung's "grab bag o' beef" pho
Welcome to OC Weekly's Final Pho. Sixteen pho shops chosen from the more than 100 in the county; four critics who know what the pho makes a good bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. The chosen 16 will face off in each of our brackets, two by two. Today, the last day of Round 2, two of the favorites square off.

In the actual Final Four, there are occasional upsets, teams no one expected to go very far advancing due to a misstep by the favorite team. In the Final Pho, this too can happen. The star player turns his ankle; the favorite cook makes one crucial mistake from which the game can never recover.

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Final Pho Round 2: Pho Thanh Lich vs. Quan Hop

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ProfessorSalt.com
Quon Hop's rare filet mignon "onside" with its cup of cooking broth



Welcome to OC Weekly's Final Pho. Sixteen pho shops chosen from the more than 100 in the county; four critics who know what the pho makes a good bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. The chosen 16 will face off in each of our brackets, two by two. The next match-up has Shuji . . . well, let him introduce . . .

Today's battle pits old guard against new. Resolute tradition versus next-gen evolution: Pho Thanh Lich versus Quan Hop. What Ain't Broke versus the Fix.

If you consider pho a soup dish with noodles rather than a noodle dish with soup, you will share my enthusiasm for Quan Hop. Quan Hop's astoundingly delicious beef broth slots in as perhaps the most refined and flavorful in town and is so delicious I could eat a bowl of broth all by itself. That nearly-clear consomme is crafted with obvious attention to detail.

Where Quan Hop finesses the flavors out of a more limited selection of beef cuts, bones, vegetables and possibly chicken, Thanh Lich's tastes like a brute-force beef stock. Cram a stock pot full of cuts from all over the steer, and simmer it until the dissolved collagen slightly thickens the broth. The soup is consistently dead-on, as certain to deliver as Karl Malone.
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Final Pho Round 2: Benley vs. Brodard Chateau

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Edwin Goei
Brodard Chateau's Pho
Welcome to OC Weekly's Final Pho. Sixteen pho shops chosen from the more than 100 in the county; four critics who know what the pho makes a good bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. The chosen 16 will face off in each of our brackets, two by two. The next match-up in Round 2 pits the two winners from the uppity restaurants bracket. 

And it comes to this. Out of four high-end, not-necessarily pho restaurants, Benley now goes head to head with Brodard Chateau and we determine which $9 bowl of pho goes on to the Final Pho.

But before we dive into the two phos and all of its intricacies, first, let's examine the required side of accoutrement. As I mentioned before, Benley takes the extra-meticulous step to groom its bean sprouts so that each piece is snipped of its tail and bean. Yet on this particular visit, the jalapeno slices seemed a bit dried-out, and there was no ngo gai, the saw-tooth herb that most Westernized Vietnamese restaurants seem to conveniently leave out. Brodard Chateau not only remembers the herb, but also adds sticks of buttered baguette toast, should you want to dunk it in the soup.  With this, a point goes to Brodard Chateau.

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Final Pho Round 2: Pho Dakao vs. Pho Nguyen Hue

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Just like the marquee says!
Here we go, folks: Round 2 of our epic Final Pho tournament, where Dave, Edwin, Shuji, and Gustavo each picked four pho restaurants in a 16-team fight to determine who is the pho king of Little Saigon--and therefore, the United States. Now comes the brutal matches, and here's our opener: two titans, Pho Dakao and Pho Nguyen Hue, as reported by Gustavo . . .

One of our commentators earlier in the tournament left a remark to the effect that they didn't understand the allure of chicken pho, that they found it too weak in flavor. I responded to the effect that pho gà is a completely different beast altogether. To use a boxing metaphor, chicken pho is Archie Moore to beef pho's Joe Louis . . . Oh, wait, no one pays attention to boxing anymore. Okay: beef pho would be the Fab Five of the University of Michigan back in the early 1990s, the brash, brilliant, assertive team that tore through competitors like a bully through some nerd's backpack. Chicken pho would be the Duke and North Carolina squads that beat them in the NCAA championship: careful, methodical, nuanced. Great beef pho hits you with meat, with long-simmered broth, with star anise, cinnamon and other herbs playing the reserve role; great chicken pho also features the same attributes, but is gentler, smoother, kinder--and, to me, better.

My favorite pho place in Orange County has long been Pho Dakao, legendary for its chicken pho prepared with poultry from its own farm. It breezed through its opening-round match based on its superlative soup, but I immediately saw trouble when I tried Pho Nguyen Hue's monster of a beef pho, one of the best I've ever had. I maintain that comparing beef and chicken pho on the same level is impossible, and I couldn't pick a favorite between Dakao and Nguyen Hue--this, despite my pre-match bias toward Dakao (Nguyen Hue's beef pho is THAT good). So . . . OVERTIME!

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Final Pho, Round 1: Pho 79 vs. Pho 86

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Pho 79's pho tai nam ve gan gau--rare and well-done beef, flank, brisket and tendons
Welcome to OC Weekly's Final Pho. Sixteen pho shops chosen from the more than 100 in the county; four critics who know what the pho makes a good bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. The chosen 16 will face off in each of our brackets, two by two. This episode will be played by the numbers--the last match-up in Round 1.

Staring at each other moodily catercornered at the intersection of Brookhurst and Hazard are two of the most beloved, O.G. pho shops in Orange County. They're so O.G. that, in a nod to the utilitarian naming policies of the Vietnamese government, they are identified not by name, but by number. Pho 79 is in Garden Grove; Pho 86 is in Westminster, the two grandes dames of the Vietnamese diaspora in this county.

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Final Pho Round 1: Pho Thang Long vs. Quan Hop

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ProfessorSalt.com
Quan Hop's Pho Hop Tai Onside
Welcome to OC Weekly's Final Pho. Sixteen pho shops chosen from the more than 100 in the county; four critics who know what the pho makes a good bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. The chosen 16 will face off in each of our brackets, two by two. The next match-up has Shuji revisiting the upscale branch of his bracket.

For this round, two new-school pho specialists duke it out with variations on pho with filet mignon. When your boss, date or in-laws from out of town tap you for good, real-deal Vietnamese food because you're the local expert, it would behoove you to take them to a place where they'll be suitably impressed.

Yet you still want a proper Little Saigon experience and to eat food that's not dumbed-down for non-Vietnamese palates. Can you do that without going to a white-linen-tablecloth restaurant where the specialty is a $28 Chilean sea bass entrée and not pho? Yes, you can, pho-natics, and this is where you take them!

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