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Pho Garden, San Francisco CA

After not completing the burrito challenge, friend and reader Clayton took time to work up to the Pho Garden Challenge at Pho Garden.  The restaurant is one of hundreds serving pho in San Francisco, but is set apart by five years of delicious traditional cooking and an enticing challenge.  We’re already in San Francisco dining our way through the weekend on a mini vacation across the Bay, so Clayton joined us for lunch to take on the challenge.

Two pounds of noodles and two pounds of combination beef for $22 is a heckuva deal on its own, but if finished in one hour it’s free.  The best time on record is 13 minutes, and reading the description alone before seeing the bowl, Clayton felt he was ready.  The bowl was very big, though, yet with an hour to finish, he was doubtful but we thought he could do it easily.  Tripe was part of the beef mix, though, unbeknownst to Clayton, and so the plot takes a twist.

thai iced tea

thai iced tea

Kind of like Reuben sandwiches at deli shops, August will almost always order a Thai iced tea when she sees one.  This mix was perfect, with the right amount of creaminess and not too sweet.

crispy imperial rolls

crispy imperial rolls

August and Zach shared these rolls featuring shrimp, ground pork, mushrooms and glass noodles as Clayton ate through the first few minutes.  On their own, the rolls were lightly crispy with a thin wrapper and tasty filling, but the tangy sweet dipping sauce made each bite complete.  A strong (though enjoyable) garlic flavor with tender noodles and mushrooms complemented the savory pork.

lemongrass chicken

lemongrass chicken

August’s rice vermicelli bowl was more than she had hoped for.  Lemongrass-marinated chicken cooked with onions and mild peppers sat on beds of fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, and julienned cucumber over a sizeable base of noodles.  It came with its own serving of the same sauce as the imperial rolls, and the bowl of all the ingredients combined with that sauce was something special.  “It’s a magical flavoring sauce!” she exclaimed.  The vegetables provided crunch along with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, and the chicken was delightful.  She found herself seeking out every last morsel of meat from the bottom of the bowl, despite already feeling full.

cubed filet mignon with garlic noodles

cubed filet mignon with garlic noodles

“Garlic” is the first word of this entree’s category on the menu, aptly so as the garlic in the noodles was very strong and rich.  It’s like a warning, because if you only mildly enjoy garlic, this would be way too much for you.  Zach loved it, though, as did August when she tried a sample.  His quality tenderloin beef was marinated in red wine and sauteed with potato and onion, resulting in a flavor akin to a sweeter, more flavorful teriyaki.  The flavors were so well balanced, the green peppers didn’t bother him.

not quite

not quite

Forty-five minutes in, Clayton finally asked what the funny shaped noodles were and we told him they were strips of tripe.  At that point, he lost his steam.  For a while he was saying he wasn’t going to make it, but that put the last nail in the coffin.  He officially threw in the towel with ten minutes remaining, knowing he just couldn’t eat another thing.  Watch it go down at http://youtu.be/vPAlPIR7qQA.

With plans of going as green as possible, including growing some of their own specialty vegetables, Pho Garden has become almost iconic.  Fresh food, sustainable goals, and a popular challenge will keep the doors open for a long time.

KangNam Pho House, Oakland CA

We were in the mood for simple, satisfying Asian food for dinner, and Vietnamese ph came to mind.  Sitting in Oakland’s KONO, or Koreatown Northgate, is KangNam Pho House, with primarily Vietnamese fare.  The atmosphere is slightly schizophrenic, with American pop music in the background, Korean and Vietnamese writing on the signs, and no Asian patrons in sight.  However, that did not deter us from enjoying the traditional ph.

bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, jalapeños, and lime to taste

bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, jalapeños, and lime to taste

Part of eating ph is dressing it yourself to taste with various fresh fruits and vegetables.  What made us truly savor our bowls was the freshness of this produce, bringing about a richness and depth to our otherwise simple noodle soups.

pho ga

pho ga

August ordered a regular-sized bowl of chicken ph, but to her it seemed anything but regular.  It’s a big amount, especially for the price (around $7), so you know it’s impossible to go home from here and still be hungry.  The chicken was boneless and plentiful, floating amidst the copious and tender noodles.  Two onions, green and white, enhanced the mild chicken broth.  August didn’t add any sriracha, but after taking the picture she mixed in some of the fresh produce, providing more texture and flavor.

tai, gau

tai, gau

Zach’s large ph with rare steak and well-done brisket was hearty and perfect for a chilly late afternoon.  The rare steak was very tender, and the brisket was tasty and fell apart in your mouth.  The broth was rich in beef flavor, and not at all overly salted.  Zach jazzed his up with everything from the fresh produce plate, plus a little sriracha.  After squirting in the sriracha and letting the fruit and vegetables steep, Zach got the spicy kick that he was looking for to open up his sinuses, with the added benefit of earthy savor.

KangNam Pho House is extremely wallet friendly – Zach’s large ph was only about a dollar more than August’s, and there is a kids’ menu so families are more than welcome to bring the whole crew without worrying about future college tuition.  The restaurant was hiding a secret behind the building, a they have a private parking lot!  Don’t let anyone else know, though, otherwise people might come flooding in to park there but visit other establishments.  If you find your way to KangNam Pho House’s parking, walk right in to try it out.

Kevin’s Noodle House, Concord CA

Wish we had been here before tonight.  From the outside the Concord location of Pho Huynh Hiep, or Kevin’s Noodle House, it looks very unassuming and humble.  Once inside, seeing the multitude of people enjoying pho and other Vietnamese dishes, we knew we had found something special.

coconut shake and thai iced tea, both with tapioca pearls

coconut shake and thai iced tea, both with tapioca pearls

The sinh to dac biet, or special shakes, were surprising.  Flavors like durian, avocado, and guyabano make this assortment unique.  Zach tried coconut and it was phenomenal – August does not like coconut, but she had a sip and fell in love!  The coconut flavor is there, but very mild, with strong vanilla cream to balance it.  August had a Thai iced tea (tra thai tran chau), and when Zach tried it, he said it was one of the best he had sampled.

pho bo tai

pho bo tai

This is a noodle house, so how could we not try the pho?  Neither of us are fans of tripe, literal or figurative.  We chose the pho with thin slices of steak.  The steak was cooked medium, tender, and plentiful.  The noodles were firm but giving, and they soaked up the flavor of the rich broth like a sponge.  The broth itself was delicious with mild notes of Thai basil, adding the cilantro contributed extra freshness, and the bean sprouts gave it some texture.

onion chicken soup and sweet & sour sauce

onion chicken soup and sweet & sour sauce

We each got an entree, and with it we got soup and a sweet and sour sauce for rice and vermicelli.  The soup was really a broth, but despite being nearly clear, it was thick with flavors of onion and chicken.  We didn’t use the sweet and sour sauce, because we liked the entrees as they were when they were served.

bun ga cha gio

bun ga cha gio

August loves Asian vermicelli, so she opted for a bowl with grilled chicken, lettuce, carrots, green onions, peanuts, and a fried egg roll.  Mixed all around with a dribble of sriracha sauce, this is something she could get again and again.  The chicken was super juicy and marinated well, all the vegetables were fresh, and the vermicelli was cooked just right.

com suon hot ga tau hu ky

com suon hot ga tau hu ky

Zach ordered a rice plate with a pork chop, shrimp cake, and fried egg.  The sticky rice was a flavorful bed under the meats and vegetables, absorbing the pork drippings and the pickled juices of some vegetables; some were pickled, some were fresh, providing great contrasts within that food group.  The pork chop was “awesome,” with delicious sear marks that caramelized the outside of the meat due to the sweet marinade.  The chop was tender and easy to eat.  The shrimp cake, “oh wow,” was kind of like a crispy shrimp fritter, with an egg-based batter surrounding a well-seasoned, savory shrimp patty.  The egg, when broken and running over the rice, added a deeper richness to the dish.

What started as a father’s vision of serving authentic Vietnamese cuisine in a welcoming environment, has turned into five locations throughout the Bay Area (Daly City, Oakland, Walnut Creek, San Francisco, and Concord).  We’re looking forward to our next visit, in any one of those cities.