While the ramen craze still rages on across the Bay Area, with no end in sight, let us not forget that there are other soulful and warming soups out there to prop us up through all this much-needed wet weather. Pho is a particularly nice choice because the best stuff has a base of homemade bone broth that is as good for your immune system as it is fortifying. The dish is also protein-laden enough to get you through your day. Here are three options for easy East Bay access: two classic places and one somewhat of a discovery.
I tried two different pho preparations at each restaurant, one house combo and one other highly recommended version. Please let me know in the comments section below if you have a favorite I should scout out.
When I used to visit the Bay Area from my home in Tucson before I moved out here permanently more than a decade ago, I always tried to make time for a Pho 84 run. This little restaurant was one of the only reliable places for pho at the time, long before Stag’s Lunchette moved in next door, and generally before Oakland became Oakland as we now know it, all hipster-fied. Pho 84 remains true to its roots, serving up lovingly made, inexpensive Vietnamese food. I was happy to find that the pho, in particular, had stood the test of time.
The combo pho, Pho Bo, billed as the restaurant’s signature soup, is made from homemade bone broth that is slightly more redolent of fennel than the others and deeply sweet in an oniony, root-vegetable kind of way. It comes with thinly sliced rare steak, well-done flank steak, meatballs, and a few slices of beef tendon. The meatballs have a sausage-like consistency and are particularly sweet among the meat selections. The rare steak is always my topping of choice because I can eat it before it gets cooked all the way through. The flank was nicely marbled and tender.
I also tried the all-white-meat chicken pho, Pho Ga, served in the same hearty beef broth as the beef soups and laced with pulled chicken, which is as tender and juicy as can be. The rice noodles in all the pho dishes here are a bit thicker and slightly flatter than in most places, so more chewy and substantial.
Both bowls are garnished with chopped cilantro and thinly sliced white onion. Many people add hoisin sauce, but I prefer sriracha; both condiments are on the table. As is traditional, all pho orders come with Thai basil (more herbaceous and spicy than the Italian varieties), and bean sprouts on the side. In this case, though, the typical lime wedges are replaced by even sweeter Meyer lemons, a lovely addition.
Le Cheval’s secret broth recipe involves bone marrow, and that must be why it is so deeply savory. Of all the dishes on the extensive menu, it’s the pho that stands out as a real destination dish.
The combo comes with your choice of three meats, and I got rare beef (tai), flank steak (nam) and beef balls (bo vien). The silky ribbons of well-done flank were almost as tender as the rare meat, which arrived just barely cooked. The meatballs were mild, the texture of a coarse hot dog. Other options include beef shank, crunchy flank, and brisket.
Pho ga (chicken), also served in the deeply rich beef broth, arrives simply garnished with sweet white onions and chopped cilantro. The noodles here are of the traditional vermicelli style; what is labeled as sriracha is actually better: a bittersweet, coarsely ground red chile paste. All pho dishes come with the requisite slices of lime, Thai basil, and a copious pile of bean sprouts.
Pho Thang Long
I had never really noticed Pho Thang Long until recently when I was making a taco run on International Boulevard in East Oakland. But something drew me in, and I immediately learned that it must have the beaming friendliness of the women who run the place, whose energy and warmth overflowed. The place was empty, but they welcomed me and my son as if to a party. I only hoped the food was as inviting.
We ordered the Pho Tang combo, which included rare beef, flank, tripe and meatball, and the rare beef pho as a solo affair. Both were excellent, steeped in a dark, rich broth, a bit fattier than the others, but not at all greasy. It seemed that maybe there was hint of clove or a bitter spice in there, but I can’t be sure. In any case, it was a nice balance to the sweetness of the slivers of onion floating in each bowl. Noodles here are the standard rice vermicelli, perhaps cooked a bit longer than others, so less toothsome. And there are even kid-sized versions of three types of pho for a mere $4.50.
All the meats were carefully prepared, in particular the rare beef, which was just rested on top of the cooked ingredients and left to slowly steam. There were stalks of Thai basil, of course, and lime and bean sprouts. But most of all, a delightful staff that ensured we’d be back.