Grilled-pork pho: It's what's for breakfast
Since the message boards at Chowhound.com started up in the late 1990s, the site has been known for its correspondents' tendencies to fly flags for their favorite causes. The site may have begun because of its founder's great need to profess his love for his favorite Jackson Heights arepa vendor, and you can always tell when someone is about to launch into a paean for Sushi Zo, Flor de Yucatan or Mama Lu. In the early days of the site, when I used to post, I was probably obnoxious about Langer's and Renu Nakorn. You can trace some Chowhound infatuations back a decade or more.
Still, no Los Angeles chowhound may be more identified with a single dish than the woman who calls herself WildSwede has been with the pho thit nuong at the Alhambra branch of Pho 79. Pho thit nuong is a variation of the famous beef-noodle soup garnished with sheets of grilled marinated pork instead of the usual beef and beef byproducts. If you Google WildSwede and Pho 79 on the Chowhound site, 89 separate threads show up, although admittedly sometimes she is writing about the goi cuon or the pho tai instead. You definitely get the idea that pho with grilled pork is something she enjoys.
Pho thit nuong has never sounded good to me. Vietnamese grilled pork is an unquestionably good thing, but I'd always suspected that the charred oiliness of the stuff would muddy the pure, clear flavors of a decent pho broth, making the whole bowl taste like pho al pastor. Plus, I like the tripe, brisket, tendon and sliced raw cow that give pho its primal edge.
But this morning, after an aborted trip to a congee parlor that turned out not to be open for breakfast, I finally got around to the Alhambra Pho 79, and I ordered that pho thit nuong more out of curiosity than anything else. The menu also featured pho with grilled shrimp, if I had decided to go that way -– the restaurant seems pretty ecumenical about things, making it drastically unlike the take-no-prisoners pho bac at the late Pho Minh, which was my favorite.
When the pho was plopped onto the table –- it took all of a minute and a half -– the broth was alarmingly dark, the color of black coffee, and the pork loomed ominously just underneath the surface. It did taste a bit like pho al pastor, and the flavors were a bit muddied, almost gravylike. But it turns out that pho al pastor isn't a bad thing, really, no more alarming than the raw bloodiness of the filet mignon pho bac at Pho Filet in south El Monte, which I like a lot, especially when you squirt lime into it and doctor the broth with torn Vietnamese basil.
Is the Alhambra Pho 79 going to replace Golden Deli, Thanh Lich or even the Westminster Pho 79 in my rotation? Probably not. But I'm glad it's there.
29 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra, (626) 289-0289.
-- Jonathan Gold
Photo: Jonathan Gold / Los Angeles Times