Grandpa’s Kitchen—Dry Noodles 168 has a dish I’ve neither seen nor tasted before in Little Saigon. On the menu, it’s called “Grandpa’s Dry Noodles,” but the Vietnamese translation, pho khô, reveals what it really is: the soupless version of pho. To put it another way, it’s a deconstruction of the noodle soup that has become the defining dish of the enclave.
When I say “deconstruction,” I don’t mean something made by a Ferran Adria acolyte that’s gone in two bites; this is a dish that seems an organic evolution of pho—something that an actual grandfather might have come up with on a day that was too muggy for soup.
These dry noodles are exactly that: a way to have pho and all its flavors without having to deal with huge steaming bowl of hot soup. The rice noodles—the same kind found submerged in broth—are tossed and coated in a special sauce that has whiffs of all the requisite pho spices, including star anise, cinnamon and coriander. I suspect the secret behind the recipe is actually a reduced broth that’s been seasoned with soy sauce, sugar and Maggi.
The resulting dish is like watching a previously typecasted character actor finally land that starring role he was born to play. The noodles stand tall, no longer supporting the soup. Instead, they carry the entire flavor of the dish. And then there’s the texture: Since they don’t continuously cook or get waterlogged in the broth, the noodles remain springy, almost al dente.
I’ve since learned that pho khô is a specialty of Pleiku, a city in Vietnam’s central highland region. The Lonely Planet guide notes that it’s the most popular street food in town, often served with crunchy pork cracklings and soup on the side. The version that Grandpa’s Kitchen offers also has pork cracklings sprinkled like croutons along with torn pieces of green leaf lettuce that get in the way.
On top of the noodles, the chef layers on thinly sliced flank steak and fat-rimmed brisket. Ordering the dish here, just as in Pleiku, also means you’re going to get a bowl of hot soup to sip. It’s a bona-fide pho broth, aromatic of anise, the small bowl embellished with two tiny beef meatballs that bob like buoys. And thanks to an insulating layer of melted fat, the liquid remains boiling hot throughout the meal.
Though you don’t really need to use any of them, every table is equipped with no less than 10 condiments. Huy Fong’s Sriracha is among them, of course, but the most essential are the pickled garlic slices and a paste of mashed chiles so good and hot your salivary and sweat glands are activated just looking at it.
You’re more likely to use these condiments if you order Grandma’s Dry Noodles, or mì khô, which is a dry egg-noodle dish that isn’t as rare in Little Saigon as the pho version. A different dressing coats the thin, yellow strands, something understated that tastes more or less like a blend of soy, hoisin and maybe oyster sauce. Instead of sliced beef and a pho broth, there are cuts of pork meat and a pork soup. In place of the basil leaves that come with the pho khô, pickled green papayas and carrots accompany the plate of bean sprouts. But the pork cracklings are a constant.
No matter what version of dry noodle (the menu has at least five more variants), what becomes evident as you slurp is that Grandpa’s Kitchen has found the sweet spot between Chinese-style dry noodles (which often rely on oil or rendered fat for flavor) and the Japanese dry-noodle dish tsukemen (which you have to dip into the sauce).
Grandpa’s Kitchen does offer noodles in soup, including hu tieu Nam Vang, something the Vietnamese adopted from the Cambodians that, I would argue, is Little Saigon’s second-most-popular noodle soup. But as with the pho khô, it’s best to opt for the rarely seen, such as the bánh dúc nóng, an appetizer described as “pork rice flan.” It’s actually a rice-flour porridge topped with a mix of ground pork, wood ear mushrooms and crispy, fried shallots. Cooked and served in a steaming French-onion-soup crock pot, it’s a white-hot sludge of starch that scalds as it comforts.
I haven’t researched from where bánh dúc nóng hails, but some things are better left as mysteries, such as what the “168” in the restaurant’s name signifies or why Little Saigon restaurants with random numbers on the marquee are usually better than the ones without.
Grandpa’s Kitchen—Dry Noodles 168, 14208 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 462-6259. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Noodles, $9-$10. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.