Pho to Finish

Pho Hoa Lao

My roommates and I are fortunate enough to have a guest room in our apartment, and we’ve hosted a lot of travelers over the past five years. Last week we said good-bye to another houseguest, a British woman heading to Hanoi. Although she was excited about traveling to Vietnam, she confessed that she had never tried Vietnamese food. (Any travel conversation I jump into with our guests veers toward things culinary.) So before she had time to gather her wits about her, we swept her into a car and sped off to Oakland’s International Boulevard. It was a perfect excuse to try Pho Hoa Lao, a pho parlor that a coworker had just recommended.

Pho Hoa Lao, which has been open for three years, is set on a strip of International that has become the center of Oakland’s Vietnamese community. Up and down the street, signs for markets, beauty parlors, and doctors’ offices are written in Vietnamese and English; I counted five Vietnamese noodle and sandwich shops within two blocks of the restaurant.

Chances are, it would take some work to find a bum batch of pho (beef and rice noodle soup, pronounced “fuh”) on the strip. When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s I became obsessed with pho, scouring the Tenderloin’s dingiest holes-in-the-wall for that perfect bowl. I learned something that my later experiences in Oakland have confirmed: you only get bad noodles (bland broths, mushy vermicelli) at Vietnamese restaurants that specialize in stir-fried dishes.

Pho Hoa Lao doesn’t offer a single sautéed dish — only straightforward, well-prepared noodle soups, cold noodles, and grilled meats with rice. Though the restaurant isn’t perfect, it has four things going for it: good broths, amazing drinks, a parking lot, and a spotless interior.

These four virtues are enough to pull in the crowds. On a Saturday afternoon, we had to wait five minutes to get a spot at one of the big tables. The restaurant is set up like a 747: rows of small tables on either side of the room flank long center tables seating six or seven to a side. Five servers whisk up and down the aisles carting out tray after tray of steaming bowls. Their role is perfunctory, though, as diners pull chopsticks, soup spoons, and napkins from the dispenser on the table and pay at the register.

In Vietnam, soups and cold noodles are breakfast-lunch dishes. Inside Pho Hoa Lao, everywhere you turn you see heads bent over bowls, thick columns of noodles connecting mouth to bowl. The buzz is loud, but not enough to obstruct conversation. At night, though, the crowd disappears. On our second visit, at suppertime, we dined in a near-empty room.

The regulars hit Pho Hoa Lao for noodles and noodles alone. Emulate them — skip the appetizers. There are only four anyway. We tried the cigar-shaped cha gio, sometimes known as “imperial rolls,” phyllo-thin rice paper wrapped around ground pork, shredded carrot, and cellophane noodles, then deep-fried. The rolls were tasty but overly greasy, as were the crispy shrimp cakes, two rectangles of ground shrimp wrapped in the same flaky rice paper. Both were served with an equally bare-bones but functional nuoc cham, the omnipresent Vietnamese dipping sauce that never tastes like any of the ingredients that go into it: a perfect balance of fish sauce, water, garlic, sugar, and lime juice.

Of the 56 numbered entrées on the menu, diners really have four to choose from, each with minor variations. First is bun, cold rice noodles topped with shredded lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, mint leaves, and a choice of warm grilled meats. Diners pour a small bowl of nuoc cham over the noodles and mix everything up. It’s the perfect light lunch for a summer’s day, flavorful and clean. We particularly enjoyed the pork and shrimp combination, savoring the crunch of the raw vegetables, the chewiness of the delicate noodles, and the contrast between the charred, marinated meat and the sweet dressing.

Rice plates offer the same selection of grilled meats: beef, pork strips, pork chop, chicken, or shrimp. (Keep in mind that Vietnamese cooks grill their meat until it crunches and the sweet marinades caramelize and crackle.) I found the half-inch-thin slices of pork chop a bit fatty for my taste, and preferred the grilled pork strips and the barbecued chicken. Rice plates come with coconut rice and an undressed salad of iceberg lettuce, pickled carrots, and pickled daikon strips; diners dip the meat and vegetables into a bowl of nuoc cham. One nice touch that I don’t see at many noodle restaurants: both the rice plates and the bun arrived with small bowls of clear broth specked by green onions and cilantro.

The third array of choices is a list of soups, all with a rich chicken-stock base. These can be subdivided into several different categories according to the type of meat in the broth and the variety of noodle. Most have seafood — a combo of meaty fish cake, mild white fish balls, tender whole squid bodies, and imitation crabmeat. Some also include barbecued pork and chicken. Whichever you order at Pho Hoa Lao, stick to the thin rice noodles (pho) and the thin egg noodles (mi), and avoid the overcooked, thick rice noodles (ho fun).

Of course, the starring attraction is the pho bo, which would beat out mashed potatoes for the title of World’s Best Comfort Food any day. Pho owes its enduring charm to its base, a beef broth redolent with star anise and roasted shallots. I ordered a medium bowl — big enough to feed a family of four professional bodybuilders — with all the types of beef on offer: paper-thin slivers of raw steak that cook in the broth; overly fatty brisket; meaty, lean cooked slices of flank steak; crunchy, shredded book tripe (more texture than flavor); firm meatballs; and my favorite — perfectly cooked tendon, transparent and creamily gelatinous. We supplemented the soup with fresh bean sprouts, a squeeze of lime, and leaves of Thai basil, cilantro, or rau ram, a spiky-leafed herb that tastes like cilantro hopped up on screamers.

Forget tea and order the other cold drinks. A thick jackfruit shake tastes like a cross between a papaya, a pineapple, and a mango. The “soda lemon,” common enough at Vietnamese restaurants, is the best I’ve ever had: highly carbonated water punched up with fresh lemon juice and the barest hint of sugar. We polished off our “soda sua hot ga” in seconds, surprised at how good an egg-custard soda could taste. And on both my first and second visits, I couldn’t leave without ordering the three-bean drink — if only for the pleasure of swirling the coconut milk and shaved ice together with sweetened yellow mung beans, maroon kidney beans, and green bean-paste threads.

Confident that our houseguest will not arrive in Hanoi completely unprepared to forage for herself, we left feeling full and satisfied, happy that we ourselves had gotten a small taste of her upcoming travels. Should she need a study sheet, on the way out we tucked a bilingual takeout menu into her bag.

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