Under $10: Pho Minh, South El Monte
Here we are now in steamy South El Monte. Echo Mountain, Inspiration Point and, to an extent, Altadena, loom over the landscape. The air feels sticky today; right out of the gate I already suspect I’m doing something wrong. “Jonathan Gold favored this one of all of them!” comes the recommendation from our guide. “TonyC is going to give me hell for this,” I counter. “At the very least I should call him and get his recommendation, we’re in Pho alley, I know he’s been all over this.” Sure enough, a bit of post-meal digging quickly uncovers that yes, Jonathan Gold loved this restaurant as recently as December 2008, some months after TonyC had grabbed the coveted “First to Review” spot on Yelp (May 2008). Tony’d also been all over Chowhound, in July, with fun facts that occasionally might appear to pepper Gold’s writeup to the layman (me), now and again. Still, with hindsight it’s comforting to see both reviewers raving over the same joint. We’re all here, and I’m so hungry I’m about to grab a Mr. Baguette sandwich just to tide me over from Garvey to the end of this strip mall, wherein lies our destination. Let’s do this.
CLAIM TO FAME
No-nonsense pho with fragrant cinnamon broth that might not even need the requisite lime, chili, sprout and mint additions (you’ll add all four just the same; you know it, I know it)
Friday, 10 April 2009
At 2pm on Good Friday we pretty much rule the restaurant; two other parties come in and out during our two-plus-hour visit.
- Fried Egg Rolls
Six to an order; do not be fooled by the menu’s claim that you are only getting four of the delicious li’l suckers
- Dac Biet Pho Bac
Filet Mignon “simple style Northern Pho” (to quote TonyC, as other reviewers *ahem* may or may not have) – with beef ball augmentation. Ryan: “I guess I’ll try the Pho Bac, but I really wanted to try their beef ball as well…” Super Friendly Waiter: “You can get that in there as well.” Two people spontaneously order this DIY combo.
Tai Chin Nam
Rare steak, brisket, flank.
- Bun Bo Hue (Dac Biet)
Spicy Noodles w/Pork Legs, including all manner of grisly additions. Not a true pho so much as it is spaghetti-inclusive spicy soup. The yoga instructor, fresh from a 40-day meditation course, orders this bowl and we all enjoy watching him nibbling coagulated cubes of pork blood, kneecap (or is it hoof? and who cares!), tripe and lord-only-knows down there in the spicy broth. Protein! That bowl is chock full of it. Still, he’s also received the table’s only cabbage option, so that makes for some nice color.
- Vietnamese Iced Coffee (w/condensed milk; strong as hell as you’d expect)
- Thai Style Iced Tea (might not even be on the menu but they’ll oblige)
Five seconds after the bowls hit the table, we’re in slurp city and all notions of Mr Baguette have vanished. As have the egg rolls. You can either wrap the hot li’l suckers in the provided lettuce prior to dunking them or, as does most of our table, greedily wolf them down by hand before your neighbor gets the chance to do same, ignoring the roughage completely. To date I’m still thinking about that broth in the Pho Bac, that damned fragrant broth. Lovely. But tragically, I spice the hell out of it and later, toward the end of the meal, am unable to drink as much of the broth as I’d like. There’s a lesson here, and it’s an easy one to spot: feel free to throw in lime, chili, sprout, mint, what-have-you, but the broth really doesn’t need a hell of a lot of – ok, any – hot sauce, oil, hoisin, etc. Add these at your own risk, very conservatively. Otherwise, long after all noodles, sprouts, chilis, sprigs of mint and hunks of meat have vanished you’ll sit staring into a violent, undrinkable bowl, depressed as hell. Just as I am right now. To cheer myself up I now double down on the coffee. The pho base fortunately counters this questionable decision with aplomb, and not once do I suffer from the caffeine shakes…not even when I polish off a third drink, Thai Iced Tea, to finish the proceedings.
HOW MUCH WE TALKING HERE?
Bowls can be had for as little as $4.75; jumbos, $5.55. To put it into perspective, the photo of Bun Bo Hue at the top of this page is a *small* bowl, and the bowl of Pho Bac being ruined by Hoisin (far right) is a *large* bowl. Pho Bac and Bun Bo Hue will set you back a whopping $5.55(S)/$6.50(L), though, so plan accordingly and bring that extra dollar if you want to try the house specialties. Not entirely sure what the charge is for adding beef ball or other ingredients to your Pho Bac if you really must have them (shared check); guessing ~ $1 range. Egg rolls, at six to an order, are $4.50. Also of note, unless you’re a coffee addict like myself, Tra Da, or regular iced tea, is listed as “FREE” on the menu (just like that, all caps).
WOULD YOU GO BACK?
Actually blogging this on my blackberry right now, in Rosemead, en route to Pho Minh. See you there. Look for the guy with eight coffees and no common sense.
9646 E. Garve Ave #108
South El Monte