As a kid I ate chicken soup every chance I got. If I packed myself a lunch in grade school I filled the thermos and then ate the leftovers for breakfast. Lipton’s dry soup mix, with a little splash of milk reigned supreme, Campbell’s NoodleO’s was a close second. I was in my 30s and living in California before I discovered the super powers of chicken noodle soup Vietnamese style, which made both of these beloved favorites from childhood seem tragically dull (and not exactly nutritionally viable either, but that’s another story).
A bowl of chicken pho (which in the most authentic joints tends to be served in a vessel big enough to serve as a water bowl for a Great Dane) could knock a cold on its haunches, leap over the boundary of a writer’s budgetary constraints and if consumed at lunchtime, improve my outlook on the worst day at the office. It is simple stuff. A big twist of rice noodles usually sits at the bottom, topped with vegetables, meat, herbs and tons of broth. Maybe some scraps of some dried fishy material, like shrimp.
Because I love it so, I’m fussy about my pho (pronounced “fuh,” something I learned a good 10 years into my love affair with it). Particularly the accompaniments, which vary slightly from restaurant to restaurant but generally include fresh herbs, ideally both basil and cilantro, at least one wedge of lime, a cross section of hot pepper and crisp bean sprouts. If there isn’t some form of red, Sriracha-like sauce on the table for me to stir into the bowl, I’m not interested. There needs to be spice on hand.
That’s the baggage I brought to my Eat and Run at Little Saigon. Admittedly, control-freak baggage. I’d only been there once before, for some medicinal pho to go when I was feeling ill (it did the trick). This time I just wanted it to take off the chill of an October morning.
A small is $8 ($10 for the large) and is served in a bowl still considered enormous by most standards (a golden retriever could happily lap from it). Scallions floated on the surface, along with some fresh, dark green bok choy, a nice touch. Sometimes the amount of meat in a pho can be daunting, especially since some establishments throw in gnarly stuff just shy of the beaks. At Little Saigon there wasn’t a lot of meat but what was there was nicely sized, white and tender. The basil was fresh and clearly just washed.
The only thing lacking was the broth. I’ve had worse in Maine, where pho, frankly, can be an iffy venture. This was a 6 on the flavor meter instead of a 10 (I’m perfectly happy with an 8). Even an extra couple of squirts of Sriracha didn’t bring it up to snuff. For the first time ever while eating pho, I reached for the salt.
But less than two weeks ago, I’d had a perfect broth at Little Saigon – clean and clear but rich with flavor. That’s why I’ll definitely be back for their pho again; once you’ve had a taste of just the right chicken noodle soup, you never stop seeking it.