675 Saturn Boulevard, San Diego
‘Do you have a, like, breakfast section?” I ask because I’m looking at the menu, and it’s either spring rolls, noodle soups, or rice dishes. I know, this is Vietnamese. But, at 10:00 on a Sunday morning, I’m not up to big challenges, foodwise.
“Anything you want is breakfast,” says Luc, the waiter.
“Except, usually, rice dishes we eat later. We like soups in the morning.”
Dang. Pity. Because a rice dish was what Carla was hyping to me this very mornin’. “You have got to have the Number 37 at Pho Anh,” she said. “It’s rice with shredded pork rind and steamed egg loaf and barbecue pork.” Shredded pork rind? Steamed egg loaf? That got my attention. But — call me conventional — now that I’m here, I jes’ want to eat breakfast as the Vietnamese would.
Carla knows this place because she and her buddy Ria came the other day. And I’m expecting Ria and her man Will this morning. While I wait, I definitely want coffee. The options are Café Den, Vietnamese espresso ($2.50); Café Sua, Vietnamese espresso with condensed milk ($2.75); or Café Tran Chau, Vietnamese milk coffee with boba ($2.95). I ask for Café Sua, then cast my bleary eye around the place.
It’s small but nicely turned out. Green “marble” Formica lining on the right-hand wall, with a long mirror to widen the place, white-tile floor, a green-and-white-checkered tile wall on the left, blond wood tables, dark wood chairs.
Luc turns up with my coffee. Whoa. A stainless-steel lidded pot sits on a steel tray that sits on a glass sitting in a white china bowl filled with hot water. Black coffee drips into the glass, which is a quarter-filled with sweetened condensed milk. The hot-water moat keeps the coffee warm. Next to that, Luc plonks a tall “briefcase bottle” stainless Thermos of more hot water, so I can top up my coffee. Very French. Man, I’d come for this alone.
“Which pho is the best?” I ask Luc.
“Number Six has about everything,” he says. “Special combo with slices of rare steak, well-done steak, brisket, flank, tendon, and tripe.” I see it’s $6.50.
Hmm…The phos go from #6 to #30 on the menu. All different combos of parts of cow and steak slices in different stages of doneness. ’Course, you can get, say, meatballs (#23, $5.75); shrimp, fishball, squid, and crab (#27, $5.95 small, $6.95 large); or vegetables and tofu (#30, $5.75).
“Guess I’ll go for Number Six,” I say. Then I’m seeing the appetizers: spring rolls, basically, with egg, shrimp, pork, or tofu. I love the Vietnamese way of eating them with fresh lettuce and mint leaves that you wrap around the roll before you dip it in the bowl of garlicky, sweet fish sauce. “Uh, think I’ll start with three egg rolls.” (They’re $2.95. Could have six for $5.95.)
“Okay. Maybe you should have Number Seven pho then,” Luc says. “Number Six may be too much with the spring rolls.”
I check and see that #7’s cheaper ($5.75). It’s the same as #6 except there’s less of it: it has no well-done steak.
“I love these guys,” Ria says, when she and Will turn up. “They’re always so generous. Give us free soup or hot or iced tea while we wait.”
Will goes for #23, the meatball pho, but Ria — dammit, I hadn’t noticed — turns the page to where they have dry vermicelli dishes with pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, or tofu. She orders #40, the BBQ pork ($6.50), then, for a dollar more adds BBQ beef. The page also has French bread sandwiches with the same fillings for around four bucks.
It all arrives with amazing speed. “So here’s what you do, pardner,” says Will. He reaches for the plate of fresh leaves that come with our bowls. “Soon as you get your pho, take the basil leaves and stick them in the soup while it’s hot, so it absorbs the flavor. Same with the chili-pepper slices. Then the bean sprouts, then squeeze in the lemon.”
I do it. The basil leaves smell like mint but funkier. Makes you think: How rare is it that we pick fresh leaves of stuff on our plates of American food and put them in our soups, alive, nat’ral? I squirt on a bit of Sriracha, and hoisin. The aroma comes up and tickles my nose.
Ria’s looks great, too. Red stripes of pork in a row across the top, and the beef around the edge, and bean sprouts and lettuce under the noodle pile. She pours the small bowl of pho broth over the noodles, then drops glops of scarlet chili paste on top. “I call it marmalade,” she says. I see the pork strips have crumbled peanuts and chopped green onions on top. I keep meaning to ask her for a bite, except what I’m discovering is that the more I slurp and drink down my own soup, the more concentrated and tasty it gets.
“Lot of military comes here,” says Will. He used to be a special-ops guy. “Only thing missing? Baa-mi-baa.”
“You mean lamb? Don’t think lamb’s a Vietnamese thing,” I say.
Will busts out laughing. “Boy, I wish Carla were here. She’d know. Baa-mi-baa! ‘Thirty-Three.’ Vietnamese beer. I thought you’d been around.”
“Around?” I say. “Oh, right, ‘33’ beer. Guess I’m a square.” ■
The Place: Pho Anh & Grill, 675 Saturn Boulevard, suite F (off Palm Avenue, in Southland Plaza Shopping Center), Nestor 619-423-6138
Type of Food: Vietnamese
Prices: Café Sua Vietnamese espresso with condensed milk ($2.75); three egg-roll appetizer, $2.95 ($5.95 for six); two rolls with shrimp and pork, $2.95; #6, special combo pho (soup with rare steak, well-done steak, brisket, flank, tendon, tripe), $6.50; #23 (pho with meatballs), $5.75; #27 (pho with shrimp, fishball, squid, crab), $5.95 small, $6.95 large; #30 (pho with vegetables, tofu), $5.75; #23, meatball pho, $5.75; #40, rice vermicelli with BBQ pork, $6.50; #44, French bread sandwich with BBQ beef, $3.95
Hours: 9:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m., daily
Buses: 933, 934
Nearest Bus Stop: Palm at Saturn