As with a lot of pho places in OC’s Little Saigon neighborhood, Long Beach’s Pho Hong Phat doesn’t look like much from the outside. And given the restaurant’s location near the intersection of Anaheim Street and Redondo Avenue, as well as the city’s ongoing street-construction efforts, the parking situation pretty much sucks. (Locals in the know tend to park at a nearby pharmacy, as dining at Pho Hong Phat is such a swift process that you can retrieve your car well before anyone notices.)
Though it doesn’t draw the line-around-the-corner crowds you’ll see outside the legendary Phnom Penh Noodle House on Cherry Avenue, Pho Hong Phat has a strong neighborhood following in Long Beach’s Zaferia district. I know this because for a good couple of months about a year ago, I ate lunch there several times a week and would tend to see the same faces each time, everyone from Vietnamese and Cambodian families to Latino hipsters, longshoremen and off-duty city workers. Like me, they were there for some of the best homemade pho in Long Beach.
Pho Hong Phat serves 19 mostly beef-centric variations on the noodle-soup dish, including the classic pho tai (rare steak), pho chin (well-done flank), pho tai gau (rare steak and fat brisket) and pho bo vien (beef balls). Of course, there’s also pho ga (lean chicken-breast soup) and seafood noodle soup (shrimp and imitation crab meat), the one item on the soup menu that doesn’t carry a Vietnamese name. All the soups are available in small to extra-large bowls, starting at $5.70.
Even for a pho spot, the service is excellent. The second you walk in, a waiter will immediately summon you to an open seat. By the time you sit down at your table, there is a fresh glass of water there as well as a plate of pho fixings: bunches of sweet basil along with cilantro, bean sprouts, lime and jalapeños. From the cramped but well-attended kitchen, which features several steaming metal vats of broth constantly being refilled, whatever soup you order will be on your table within a few minutes at the most; you can watch your rare steak brown before your very eyes as you stir apart the rice noodles.
Although the pho is the main attraction at Pho Hong Phat, worth mentioning is the Chinese bread, which, despite its name, more resembles a splayed, hotdog-bun-shaped, deep-fried doughnut and boasts the delicate texture and flavor of a New Orleans-style beignet. At just $1 per order, it’s a deceptively decadent side dish that you can dip in your soup, making the meal more like breakfast, even if you’re eating at lunchtime.
And then there’s Pho Hong Phat’s secret weapon: the house-made chile paste. Although you can still eat your pho with the Sriracha or hoisin, try this paste. It is decadently smoky and garlicky, the color of red ochre, and packs an intense but not overbearing heat. Mix it into your broth, or spill some into a ramekin so you can dip pieces of steak as needed. (Jars of the stuff can be purchased from behind the counter.)
As with any legit pho spot, you don’t wait for a check, but rather go straight to the counter when you’re finished eating. There’s no obvious tipping jar, but I tend to leave a few bucks on the table, then stick a few bills in the charity box to the right of the cash register, just for good fortune. While the staff aren’t known to make small talk, they do recognize a familiar face. Although I hadn’t been to Pho Hong Phat for several months, when I was about to leave on my latest visit, one of the regular waiters winked at me and said, “See you tomorrow!”
Pho Hong Phat, 3243 E. Anaheim St, Long Beach, (562) 498-3754. Open Thurs.-Tues., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Cash only.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).