Throw a stick anywhere in Westminster and it'll hit a pho joint. Not so in Irvine, where Vietnamese restaurants are as rare as the slices of steak in the soup they serve. At my last count, there are exactly five eateries that serve this foul-weather food.
The stalwarts are the two Pho Bac Ky's and the Pho 99 on Jeffrey. But the rest changes hands more often than a basketball. The latest to get passed is Saigon Grille, which enters the open court as Pho Ha Noi, managed by the same people who brought you Pho Hung Vuong in Tustin.
But for a few months after the purchase, no one bothered to take down the Saigon Grille sign, leaving many Irvinites who received coupons in the mail for Pho Ha Noi wandering the streets baffled and soupless.
They did finally send somebody to Michaels to buy white stencil to put up the new name on the windows. This stemmed the confusion at least for this diner, but others who walk in never having been to Saigon Grille wouldn't have known the difference anyway — they kept the opulent interior exactly the same. Red walls. Slanted mirrors. Wicker-backed chairs. It's a pretty space that works.
What's changed is the menu. Previously, Saigon Grille featured big ticket items like the $16 mien xao cua (stir fried vermicelli noodles with crab meat) and baked catfish. It was optimistically ambitious cuisine for a neighborhood that just wanted pho. Wisely, Pho Ha Noi got the message: No one wants to pay more than $10 on Vietnamese food, even in Irvine.
Now just the basics are offered at prices slightly higher than Little Saigon rates, but dramatically lower than its predecessor. And they're still adjusting them to appease the stingy nature of pho-eaters — the lunch specials were marked down by a buck in the last month. $6.95 now gets you a bowl of pho, a crispy egg roll made from rice-paper, and a soft drink.
However, for those who suffer from pho fatigue (or as I like to call it, pho-tigue), there's the hu tieu mi dac biet which retails at about $7. In a bowl and over two types of noodle (crinkly egg and jelly-clear glass), a hot pork/chicken broth is poured. Then on comes toppings of steamed shrimp, fish balls, slices of pork, curly cuts of squid and two boiled quail eggs. Some float, some sink; all are welcome, especially the quail eggs.
Torn leaves of iceberg lettuce, a few sprinkles of fried onion, some cilantro, and scallions give it color and crunch. Though the broth lacks the lip-smacking presence of pork fat requisite in the best versions of the dish, it's almost a carbon copy of Pho Hung Vuong's bowl of the same name. Now if only Saigon Grille served it all along…
Pho Ha Noi
14021 Jeffrey Rd.
Irvine, CA 92602
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.