Pho Dakao is a very popular Vietnamese restaurant in Fountain Valley, Calif. nestled in a strip mall shared by other very popular Vietnamese restaurants so be ready to battle for a parking spot and to wait in line. The restaurant offers both chicken (Pho Ga) and beef (Pho Bo) noodle soup, with a multitude of customization options, such as meatballs, rare steak, brisket, tripe and tendon or you can have all the options together in the “dac biet” or special version. Other items on the menu include rice dishes and dry noodle dishes.
I ordered the Pho Bo with rare steak and well done brisket and the lemongrass pork and broken rice (Com Thit Nuong). While I like Pho Ga, I am more into the stronger and more prominent beef flavor of Pho Bo. At almost $15 for a bowl of Pho Bo, the price was a little on the steeper side, however not as outrageous as some other spots these days.
True to form, my father remarked on how cheap a bowl of pho used to be “back in the day.” He also noted that the people eating pho were different, encompassing all ethnicities, compared to when he was a boy growing up in Little Saigon.
In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese refugees settled in Orange County, Calif., creating an ethnic enclave in the area around the cities of Fountain Valley, Westminster and Garden Grove. This area would be known as Little Saigon, in reference to the former capital of South Vietnam.
Vietnamese people in this area would frequent restaurants serving traditional Vietnamese dishes, including pho, reminding them of their former country and home. My father remembers that there were only a handful of pho restaurants sprinkled around the area, targeting a very specific Vietnamese clientele.
Orange County is now home to over 189,000 Vietnamese Americans. A quick search of Yelp shows over a hundred restaurants serving pho in the Westminster and Garden Grove areas alone.
Over the years, pho and other Vietnamese cuisine, like banh mi and spring rolls have grown in popularity. Today, you can find instant pho in major market chains such as Trader Joe’s and Costco. Popular food personalities like Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri routinely review and praise pho and other Vietnamese dishes. Heck, even Anchorage, Alaska has almost 30 restaurants serving pho or other Vietnamese food according to Yelp.
As for the Pho Bo at Pho Dakao, the beef broth was rich and the rice noodles were thin and soft, allowing you to taste all of the broth’s flavor with its hint of ginger, star anise and cinnamon. At the end of the bowl, I was feeling satisfied and warm, forgetting how cold it was and better appreciating that the recent “L” on the baseball field was another opportunity for improvement.
The lemongrass pork and broken rice dish was also phenomenal; I was able to taste the nice char flavor on the pork, and the little refreshing hints of lemongrass. Mix it with the rice, and the flavors combine perfectly. The dish gets its name from its humble origin as it uses the broken grains of rice left over from the traditional drying and milling process which were available to the poor rice farmers.
The different sizes and shapes and softer textures of the broken rice cooks faster and takes on flavors more easily. This might be the Vietnamese version of “making lemonade out of lemons.”
Seeing all different ethnicities enjoying the same food and how far pho and Vietnamese food has come in popularity in the United States and globally has lent me some hope that people can come together and share and discuss the things they may have in common. If we can discuss what we have in common, we can also discuss and share our differences. I’m not saying that we’ll be able to settle those differences any time soon, but at least we can discuss them over a good bowl of noodles.