Good Vietnamese food should sizzle. It should reach down your throat and grab your tongue and tonsils with that snap, crackle, and pop feeling that hurts - Mmmmm! - so good... I'm talking passion! Spontaneous weekends in Vegas. Sex in the rain. You know you want it. Jennifer Beals cutting loose and going wild in Flashdance, never mind her insipid romance with Michael Nouri or the lackluster plot. Sexy, vibrant, frenzied, alive; oh what a feeling!
But, it should also be balanced. I'm talking that delicate ying-yang interplay of flavors, textures, and colors that twines itself around your mouth in a dance of delight. Good Vietnamese food should flow like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire on the best night of their lives in satin slippers with Teflon soles. Classy. Smoooooooth...
Good Vietnamese food leaves you full and fulfilled - Content, yet hungry for more.
Yet, why oh why, after my last meal at Pho 99 was I left wondering where Fred and Ginger had gone, and why Yo Yo Ma was sitting on a packing crate with a banjo in the abandoned depths of my soul playing Moon River to a full hall of nothing? Good Vietnamese food should not leave you lacking, should not leave you wanting... Something... Frustrated.
Overwrought? My prose and I.
Pho 99 is a bit is a mystery to me. While I know it's a Southern Californian chain with locations in City of Industry, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Lake Forest, Los Angeles, and Orange, extensive online research as been unable to shed any light on how extensive that chain may actually be. There seem to be Pho 99 locations in major metropolitan cities across the US, as well as in other countries. Without the ability to compare menus, I can't say if they're part of the same organization. Similarly, not a single restaurant or holding company has a website, save a chain in British Columbia and Washington state whose website isn't fully functional. The local Pho 99 chain is held by Pho 99 Restaurants Inc., which is registered in Orange. One of the partners, Mr. Lang D. Pham, makes regular contributions of $500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. So, other than the fact the company is registered locally and is politically active, I got nothing. Usually I can at least give you guys a website or concrete listing of branches to go on for chains.
In any case, the Pho 99 branch in Irvine is stylishly decorated in the soulless way I've come to expect from casual dining chains in Southern California. With wood tones, pseudo-artsy lighting, a fake fountain, and mass manufactured paintings on the walls, it's easily duplicated and completely forgettable.
The clientele tends to be a younger set of high school and college students. I rarely see families at this Pho 99, particularly Asian families. I imagine they all have better places to get their pho.
When Cat and I were in college, we went to Irvine's Pho 99 every so often. Our visits tapered off as the years passed and we found greener pastures in which to feed. However, since we were feeling a bit nostalgic earlier last month, we decided to stop by one sunny Sunday afternoon for a reminiscent lunch.
Cat started off with her old favorite; the Lemon Soda. A generous spoonful of granulated sugar was placed in a glass, followed by the juice of one lemon, and topped off with club soda. It was served with a straw and a long handled spoon for stirring. I've always found this soda to be too gritty for my taste, since the low temperature of the liquid inhibits the complete dissolution of the sugar crystals. Plus, I can make it in my kitchen in about five minutes for a lot less than the $2.25 asking price. However, Cat really likes the flavor and texture. Truth be told, I rarely have all the ingredients on hand to make the drink, so I don't mind if she orders it now and then.
Since I had a craving for goi cuon, I got myself some as an appetizer. Goi cuon are Vietnamese summer rolls usually filled with some form of poached protein, rice noodles, herbs, and greens, and wrapped in a soft rice skin. In a good goi cuon, the rice skin is soft and springy, with just a little bit of resistance before it gives. The protein has been lightly poached in salted water, so it's gently flavorful. The filler is equal parts shredded greens, like Romaine, and softened rice vermicelli. The rice vermicelli has been reconstituted in lightly salted water as well. There's a strong but tempered herbal presence from either cilantro or Thai basil. It should not be overpowering. The overall effect should be a mild yet flavorful harmony. A summer roll, in short, should taste like summer.
Like a lot of Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food is all about the balance between salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, and astringent. The flavors don't need to be in-your-face, but they should be present and they should play together nicely. That's what I look for when I eat goi cuon. The goi cuon at Pho 99 tasted half finished. They had the mild saltiness with the chewy and crunchy textural components I was looking for. What they were missing was the floral astringency from the herbs. Instead, I got what tasted like a shrimp salad in a wrapper. It made a good conveyor for their very tasty peanut sauce, but I wanted to eat goi cuon that day, not shrimp salad with peanut dressing. Amazing how the lack of balance with one ingredient can throw the whole culinary experience out of kilter.
Cat was in a nibbling mood, so she ordered the Khai Vi Dac Biet appetizer platter for herself. It came with four pieces of goi cuon, four shrimp rolls, and four pieces of nem ran. I've already covered my impression of the goi cuon above. Just to be sure I hadn't gotten a bad batch, Cat and I swapped a piece. The flavors were the same; disappointing. Cat liked the goi cuon just fine. She wasn't particularly impressed, but she also wasn't dissatisfied with them the way I was.
The shrimp rolls were pretty good. Shelled shrimp had been tossed in soy sauce, wrapped in flour-based wrappers, and deep fried. The wrappers were light and crunchy, separating into distinct layers like filo. The shrimp were juicy with just the right amount of salt.
Nem ran are Vietnamese spring rolls. They are traditionally made with some form of ground protein and wrapped in rice skin and deep fried. However, most modern nem ran take a page from Chinese cun juan and use the same flour-based wrappers that are used for the shrimp rolls. A good nem ran is crisp and crunchy on the outside without being greasy. The filling is cooked through, juicy, and the flavors meld well. Properly fried nem ran can be left on a plate for hours with little degradation in flavor or texture.
The nem ran at Pho 99 were excellent. The filling was predominantly well-seasoned ground pork, with shredded carrot and wood ear mushrooms. The outside was crunchy, the filling was moist, and when Cat offered me her last piece at the end of the meal, it tasted almost as good as the bite I stole when the platter arrived.
My overall experience with Pho 99 was unfortunately less rosy than Cat's. While I was growing up, my father used to take me out for pho all the time in Northern California. Big events, major victories, minor triumphs, and the occasional defeats or disappointments were all celebrated or commiserated over big bowls of steaming pho. My father is as much a foodie as I am, so we probably ate our way through at least half the pho shops in Milpitas, San Jose, Cupertino, Saratoga, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, and Mountain View. My father would always scout out a location first. If it met with his approval, the family could expect to eat there at least once every weekend for a month or so before moving on to his latest discovery. My father, who is a noodle fiend, is the one I credit for instilling in me a love for pho.
So, whenever I was feeling particularly homesick, Cat and I would end up at Pho 99 in Irvine. I remember the pho at Pho 99 as passable, but not particularly distinguished. What I didn't remember it being was bad.
Good pho consists of al dente rice noodles that remain separate from one another while sitting in the bowl. The protein is either tender or firm, depending on the type. The broth is a complex and robust brew delicately flavored with anise and the appropriate amount of salt. The herbs in the garnish plate are plentiful, and add the floral bitterness, spiciness, sourness, and astringency required to give the entire dish the proper finish.
Being a hungry guy, I ordered a large Pho Dac Biet, which came with rare and well cooked beef, brisket, tendon, and tripe. I also had them throw in three wontons for good measure. Look at the picture of my pho above. What do you see? Or, more precisely, what don't you see? You don't see the noodles. They were all stuck together in a lump at the bottom of my bowl. You don't see much protein. There were about two small pieces of each item at most. You don't see the thinly sliced onion usually placed on top for a little hint of sweetness. They left it out completely. You don't see any rare beef. There was a bit of pink here and there, but for the most part the rare beef was cooked just like the cooked beef. Huh. Go figure.
Now, let's talk texture and taste. The wontons were overcooked, with mushy wrappers, powdery filling, and large chunks of gristle. The beef? Tasted ok, but was tough, dry, and overcooked. I found it difficult to distinguish between cooked and rare. The few bits of brisket I found were mostly gristle and resisted chewing. The one piece of tendon in there was hard and crunchy. Tendon should be melt-in-your-mouth tender, not crunchy! The few wisps of tripe were impossible to chew. I might as well have tried to eat strips of surgical glove. The real blow was the broth. I've had bad broth before, but the broth in this bowl didn't even register as bad. It barely registered at all. Other than a faint, dishwater-like twang, I was in Flavor Country's Death Valley. Maybe what I was actually served was the broth of phos past. Who knows.
Adding insult to injury was this paltry plate of garnish. Half a cup of bean sprouts, one sprig of thyme, and a lime wedge were what I had to work with. Not a slice of chili to be seen. But, I was still grateful, because with the hot water they were trying to pass off as crappy broth, I needed every bit of help I could get. I added all of the garnish, tasted the broth, then added hoisin and sambal because it was still lacking. I even flagged down a waiter and asked for mam ruoc (a pungent and highly flavorful Vietnamese fermented shrimp paste), something I almost never do. They didn't have any. What I ended up with wasn't Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing in my bowl, it was that creepy Six Flags guy tap-dancing to the tinkling sound of my falling hopes.
Unable to finish my highly disappointing bowl of pho, I decided to order one of their grilled pork bahn mi to quell the last bits of hunger in my churning stomach. Now, a proper bahn mi- Screw it. I'm out of patience. You see that? That's about half the size of the one at Lee's Sandwiches at close to double the price. Those carrots? Barely pickled. Chiles? Not in there.
Here's the kicker.
Where's the meat? Somebody tell me where the @#$%-ing meat is. I took two bites and asked for my check.
Pho 99 - If you prefer a kick in the balls to sex, this is the place for you. Soulless style over substance designed to extract your hard earned cash in return for pale imitations of the real thing. If you do wind up there, order the appetizer platter and lemon soda. Everything else was a wash. It's not horrible, but it's not good Vietnamese food.
Bill (for two):
Khai Vi Dac Biet (Appetizer Sampler) - 8.95
Goi Cuon (Summer Rolls) - 3.95
Large Pho Dac Biet (Northern #1) - 6.95
+ Extra Wontons (3) - 1.50
Bahn Mi w/ Grilled Pork (Sammich) - 3.50
Lemon Soda - 2.25
Tax - 2.10
Tip - 4.00
Total - 33.20
5414 Walnut Ave
Irvine, CA 92604
City of Industry, Costa Mesa, Lake Forest, Los Angeles, and Orange
(They may actually be a far larger chain, since there are Pho 99s in almost every major metropolitan area in the US. However, extensive research hasn't turned up any conclusive evidence. The Southern California locations listed are guaranteed to be part of the same chain as the one in Irvine I reviewed.)
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