The number 12: beef pho with rare steak and fatty brisket
What I considered a failure of April weather, my wife took for an opportunity to visit a tried and true staple for lunch. So with gray clouds firmly fixed over a cool, windy City Heights, we made our way to Little Saigon. That stretch of El Cajon Boulevard — roughly between Euclid Avenue and Highland Avenue — is home to plenty of Vietnamese staples, to be honest. But on a day like this, it would have to be Phở Hóa.
4717 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
Its parking lot was still filled with tented seating, but like many customers we chose to be seated indoors. Which is good news if you’re looking for a filled propane tank, which was virtually impossible to find this winter, with all the outdoor dining venues snatching them up to fuel heat lamps. Despite an unusually blustery spring, the return of indoor dining — even at its current (to this writing) 50-percent capacity — should prevent any more chilly outdoor meals.
Not that cool weather matters much when you’re ordering at Phở Hóa, where the menu varies almost exclusively by which toppings you’d like with your steaming hot beef broth and rice noodles. Out of nearly two dozen options, each under ten bucks, the number one features rare steak, well done brisket, flank, tendon, and tripe, and most of what follows is a variation on that theme. It’s effectively all phở, all the time, and everything good that flows from that beef broth, the best in this city.
It feels like understating it to call it broth. It has the clarity of consommé, yet the aromatic complexity drawn from the long, slow boiling of bone broth with charred ginger and onion and warming spices. You can see flavorful oils floating like slicks across the stock’s surface. I don’t know how long Phở Hóa’s stock cooks before serving, because it doesn’t matter when you’re a customer. Service is so quick, your chosen bowl of phở is practically ready before you’re done ordering it.
For decades, this has been the go-to phở spot for those who know best.
You have to go halfway down the menu to find my preferred order: rare steak and fatty brisket, and still i fear I’ve become predictable. But no, the kitchen is just that fast. It’s one of the perks of operating a restaurant that focuses on doing one thing extremely well. So I choose to think of ordering it the same way as one of the perks of eating this one thing extremely well.
There’s some variation up for grabs: it’s up to each diner to finish the soup to their liking. From a plate of toppings brought with each bowl, you may choose whether to add a squeeze of lime, a handful of mung bean sprouts, or basil leaves to taste. You can add more flavor. There’s not really a wrong way, though my wife did have to explain it’s impolite to leave my chopsticks sticking up out of the bowl, as they resemble incense sticks lit upon a funeral altar.
I guess there’s always something to learn when dining out, even at a restaurant that achieves the same near-perfection every time. When I think back to the first time I tried Phở Hóa, I learned something else, that I won’t ever forget: it can really help you get past a hangover.