If Little Saigon is to Vietnamese restaurants as LA's seminal Chinatown is to Chinese food, then Lake Forest might be OC's San Gabriel Valley. For a bedroom community with a relatively low Asian population, Lake Forest now has more pho restaurants per resident than neighboring Irvine, a city with significantly more Asians.
If that's true, Pho Bo Vang is the Methuselah in South County's budding Vietnamese restaurant scene and arguably the benchmark as pho slowly spreads into OC's other Dixie cities. Though it has reportedly changed hands a few times, it's still family-operated. The restaurant looks as if it were surgically transplanted from Bolsa. Its mirrored walls make the small room look bigger than it is. Its customers, no matter their demographic, all know to order the pho with the jellied bits of tendon, to wrap the cha gio in the lettuce leaf before dunking it in fish sauce, and to squirt the hoisin and Sriracha with abandon.
Oh, that pho: The noodles flow naturally in the soup. Bo Vang's broth is bright and anise-scented, ladled scalding-hot from giant stock pots you can see being skimmed and coddled through an open door into the kitchen. As toppings, the tai, sliced raw beef, can be a bit too chewy, but the tripe is flawless, the most tender stomach lining you'll never need to chew. The beef balls bite with a spring-loaded resilience.
But if Lake Forest is South County's pho capital and Pho Bo Vang its elder statesman, then San Juan Capistrano is still the uncharted pho frontier, with Ann's Pho & Teriyaki its Daniel Boone. Being the only restaurant in town offering Vietnamese food, Ann's Pho & Teriyaki is also an all-purpose Asian eatery catering to those who might not care that its roster of pho, udon and chicken chow mein does not hail from the same country. Recently claimed from a failed Chinese establishment, with stylish booths and modern art on the walls, it puts up a valiant effort in introducing pho to the community.
So far, its Asian customers are the only ones taking on the pho. Everyone else seems content ordering stir fries with a side of salad and brown rice. There's an excellent fried-chicken-wing appetizer tossed with diced green peppers and scallions that mirrors the classic salt-and-pepper preparations so well you could conclude the restaurant is, at its heart, a Chinese one. But Ann's Pho & Teriyaki also produces a good bowl: Despite slightly undercooked rice noodles and a broth lacking in anise and spice, the soup is showered with finely minced scallions and cilantro as though it were confetti. The seafood variant—with shrimp, chunks of white fish, scallops, mussels, and squid scored to look like a pineapple—is as worthy a bastardization of pho as any.
The best proof that the assimilation of pho is in full swing in South OC is in Foothill Ranch. Maison de Pho is owned by a recent Japanese immigrant, located in a food court and operated entirely by a staff of Hondurans. These gents, who told me they were trained in the Vietnamese kitchens of Lake Forest, can wok-toss fried rice with the best of them, using bits of barbecue pork, peas, carrots, Chinese sausage and a calculated amount of shrimp. At the front of the house, the servers are well-versed in what is expected of a Vietnamese restaurant. Bean sprouts and basil automatically arrive as garnish for anyone who orders pho. A thimble of peppered lemon juice is served for those who opt for a plate of the excellent, lightly battered garlic shrimp. The rest of the menu is indistinguishable from those seen in Little Saigon, and most dishes are executed rather well. The rice plates come complete with cha and barbecue pork that's actually preferable to the pho. Though the bowls reek of the unrefined musk of beef and have an excess of noodles, they are decent, with cuts of brisket thick enough to pass for a Texas barbecue.
Most of all, this hints at the future of pho and Vietnamese food, when the people preparing it and the people eating it aren't always going to be the same as the people who introduced it to our culture. It won't be long before pho will cease to be ethnic and will be as American as, well, tacos and pizza.
This review appeared in print as “The Pho Frontier: The new proliferation in South OC bodes well for the assimilation of Vietnamese food.”
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.