The Pho-1-1 on Where to Get Your Soup On

So we've been appreciating Vietnamese food lately -- I've got a Vietnamese coworker who has made us some tasty fresh rolls and bun bo hue (spicy beef soup), and there are some decent places that are within walking distance from our apartment so we can get some exercise walking to get some healthy food when we're in the mood.

Lucie is a fan of either the pho or the egg noodle soup, depending on where we go, and I can dig just about anything, so we thought it might be fun to write about the Vietnamese restaurants we visit most often.  And with as much as we're enjoying this type of fare, who knows -- this might just be a recurring blog theme.

The first place we started to visit was Tung Kee (possibly also known as TK Noodle, or maybe King Noodle; seriously, those joints seem to change names more than San Jose expressways do.)  They're not really known for their pho, which is fine -- we didn't really know what we were missing when we ate there anyway.  Their chow fun is good, though, and I'm just a big fan of their egg flour cake, so we did enjoy eating there... and their Vietnamese ice milk coffee is mighty tasty, so there's always that going for them.

The soup isn't actually bad, just... not exactly remarkable.  Sort of like McDonald's hamburgers, if you're a burger person.  And yes, that's a comparison made by a very, very Asian-food-ignorant white person, so please take that into consideration.  They have small pieces of crunchy pork fat in the soup, which I find tasty but which irritate Lucie's throat when they catch her unawares.

But we wanted something better than that, so we stepped up one rung on the fatter ladder and tried out Pho Hoa.  Their pho is decidedly better -- it's in their name, so they've gotta be decent; they're like the Smucker's of Asian restaurants (and yes, that's a simile made by a very, very Asian-food-ignorant white person, so please take that into consideration) -- with a good ginger flavor in the broth and some decent egg rolls.  Their soup sizes are impressive, and most of their locations are open way late so it suits our night owl tendencies pretty well.

However, they're also a restaurant chain, like Tung Kee TK King Noodle, and therefore not exactly a provider of what most Vietnamese would call "authentic" Vietnamese food... sort of like Denny's offers a steak dinner, but it's nothing like what you can find at a good steakhouse in the Midwest or New York.  And, sorry, but please understand that that's a comparison made by a very, very Asian-food-ignorant white person, so please take that into consideration.

Enter Khanh's, on Winchester Boulevard across from Santana Row; only like 10 minutes walking distance from our apartment and also open relatively late so we can walk there after work if we're in the mood.  These folks have Lucie's favorite egg noodle wonton soup, as well as having some satisfyingly spicy chicken curry or a nice crisp Saigon crepe when I'm in the mood.  Their fresh roll appetizer is also one of our favorites, with the peanut sauce a very velvety consistency and worthwhile savory accompaniment.

And for the piece of resistance (or, "pièce de résistance -- I surrender!"), their desserts are fantastic.  Petite, elegant, not-too-sweet works of art whose delicate flavors perfectly cap the subtlety of flavors usually found in Vietnamese cuisine (fish sauce notwithstanding), they make you feel extravagant having one while knowing that even indulging in three of these babies would still net you less than 10% of the calories in anything you'd find at the Cheesecake Factory.  Like every other restaurant we've tried on this list, they also make a mean ice milk coffee that goes well with the desserts -- just order it ahead of time to let it steep.  I always forget until we order dessert, and I end up poking and prodding at the tiny little French press, trying to get the drink ready to drink faster.

In early March, another Vietnamese joint opened up almost right across the street from us, so we made a point of going there as well.  While Khanh's is a single location, Pho 24 is along the lines of Pho Hoa or Tung Kee, i.e., another link in a restaurant chain.  Their food is decent for the most part -- we bought our first Saigon crepe there and found it awesome, though the meatballs in the pho are quite inconsistent in their texture -- but at least in our experience the service is lacking.  We've been there five times by my count, and had an issue ranging from quirky to downright irritating every time... from forgetting items we ordered to go; to bringing the appetizers, main course, and bill to our table almost all at the same time; to adding tendon to Lucie's pho when she didn't order it, which made the soup less than appetizing for her.  As far as pho goes, they're not bad, and they've got some cheap prices; but in this case I feel you really do get what you pay for.  Unfortunately, these guys also failed pretty badly on my ice milk coffee -- mine tasted like it was made with evaporated milk instead of the sweetened condensed milk that gives Vietnamese coffee part of its huge kick to the taste buds.

To be fair, we haven't been back here since early May, though, so maybe they've ironed out the kinks.  If we give them another chance and they've improved I'll definitely update this blog as well as my review on Yelp.

Our latest find is Pho Wagon, on Meridian Avenue near the main post office.  We'd seen the restaurant a few times before, when we were making a trip to the post office to pick up a shipment of coffee or some shoes ordered online, but hadn't bothered to try it out.  Not really sure why -- maybe it was that we were always in a hurry to get someplace, possibly it was that we were already happy with Khanh's and didn't at that time feel the need to branch out, mayhap it was the prevailing opinion that "pho wagon" sounds more like a food truck than a brick and mortar building... but after being disappointed with Pho 24 and wanting to try something different, we read some reviews of this place on Yelp and decided to give it a try.

...And for the most part, we're definitely happy we did.  The service is welcoming and friendly, but a little bit lax in their attentiveness -- they say they offer free refills on their iced tea, but neither of us has ever actually gotten a refill, whereas Khanh's must have like three guys <I>just</I> on beverage refill duties, since they're fully on the ball when it comes to unobtrusive yet fantastic service -- but without a doubt Pho Wagon wins it in the pho department for the places we frequent.  The broth is light and not oily at all, the noodles are plentiful and have a good mouth feel when you're sucking them down, and the ingredients have never been anything less than top notch.  Their egg noodle wonton soup isn't as good as Khanh's, but their fresh rolls are up there with our favorites, their desserts (banana cake and a densely sweet coconut ice cream with fried banana) are the second best as far as taste and value, and their pho is the best we've had so far.

(This is not pho related, but we've also been to Dakao Sandwich Two in Milpitas -- haven't had the soup there yet, but they make a superb barbecue pork banh mi.  Very affordable, fresh and crunchy bread, and a surprisingly large amount of meat stuffed into a nicely satisfying lunch option.  If you're more in the mood for a sandwich than soup, we both highly recommend these guys.)

To date, these are the only places Lucie and I have both tried that offer Vietnamese food (other than my Vietnamese co-worker's house -- she does make some groovy fresh rolls and the best bun bo hue I've had yet, but I wouldn't count her kitchen among the places to stop by unless you're cleared ahead of time; she tends to hit people.)  I've been to a few other places that Lucie hasn't -- yet -- but she's game to try them out as well, so expect an update or two as we expand our pho adventure.

Current ranking:
Fresh rolls: Khanh's
Pho: Pho Wagon
Egg noodle wonton soup: Khanh's
Banh mi: Dakao Sandwich Two
Desserts: Khanh's
Service: Khanh's