In an October 2010 blog post, OC Weekly writer Dave Lieberman argues: "If chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, then pho is Vietnamese pseudoephedrine."
Beyond its arguable cold-suppressing qualities, the roughly century-old dish has become revered internationally for its lovely spice-infused, herb-enhanced and beef-bolstered flavor. And when applying Lieberman's "Five Signs of a Good Pho Restaurant" to the signature soup at newly opened Pho Viet 1, the place totally checks out.
There's "greenery galore" (ample accompanying basil and cilantro with bean spouts, citrus wedges and fresh hot chiles); generous meat; staple condiments like Sriracha, hoisin sauce, black pepper and fish sauce; clear support from the local Vietnamese community; and payment made at the register versus the table.
Some of those qualities are less important than others, and ultimately the pho's taste is what really matters. I enjoyed both the seafood bowl with shrimp, scallops, squid, surimi and mini gefilte-fish-like fish balls ($6.25/small, $6.95/medium, $7.50/large), and a beef bowl ($5.25/$5.95/$6.50; $3.99 as a daily lunch special) that brought steak, flank, brisket, tripe and tendon with the requisite bánh pho base (featuring wide rice noodles).
Between the squid, tripe and tendon, potentially off-putting chewy textures abounded, but the hearty beef broths endowed the thin-sliced steak and brisket in particular with pleasant, subtle and traditional flavors like clove, cinnamon and anise.
As authentic and excellent as the pho dishes are, they actually were my least favorite items over two visits. I had the most fun — in a sugar-toothed-kid kinda way — ordering durian-, taro- and avocado-flavored tapioca-ball boba milkshakes ($3.75) from a 16-deep list.
The avocado and durian, like many more familiar-to-America flavors, incorporate real fruit, while the taro and less common selections use a powder that leaves a slightly synthetic trace. Even with it, the bright lavender-colored taro won our affection with a unique toasted candy flavor, approaching something like a waffle cone or funnel cake. And given the olfactory offensiveness of durian (which the outfit dampens by cutting the fruit fresh, then freezing it), it's nice to have it prepared for you outside your own house.
Back to likeable savories, a price-topping, deep-fried soft-shell crab plate ($15.95) delivered three crunchy beauties with thin onion rings. You wrap them in lettuce leaves and herbs, then dip it all into the same, vinegary-sweet house fish sauce that's served with awesome crispy-rice-paper-wrapped, peanut-flecked shrimp and crab egg rolls ($6.95).
And a generous Vietnamese shrimp and pork salad ($10.95), reminiscent of Thai larb for its bright, citric backbone and lightness, blended purple and white cabbage shreds with delicate red onion ribbons, halved prawns and thin, well-done pork strips. We poured our extra fish sauce on to more delight.
According to his daughter Anh, owner and cook Cong Nguyen brings more than 20 years' culinary experience, including time at former west-side ventures Hunan Dragon and Saigon Stars, to the fast, affordable and spacious eatery. It's not much to look at: The former Pizza Hut near Academy Boulevard is still dressed with burgundy curtains over cupcake-shaped windows, and you sit at plain tables on worn booths with little life left in the cushioning.
But referring back to Lieberman, the basic décor is another good sign for a pho spot. Focus on the food? Fine by me.