Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pho Ha Noi - Irvine

Throw a stick anywhere in Westminster and it'll hit a pho joint. Not so in Irvine, where Vietnamese restaurants are as rare as the slices of steak in the soup they serve. At my last count, there are exactly five eateries that serve this foul-weather food.

The stalwarts are the two Pho Bac Ky's and the Pho 99 on Jeffrey. But the rest changes hands more often than a basketball. The latest to get passed is Saigon Grille, which enters the open court as Pho Ha Noi, managed by the same people who brought you Pho Hung Vuong in Tustin.

But for a few months after the purchase, no one bothered to take down the Saigon Grille sign, leaving many Irvinites who received coupons in the mail for Pho Ha Noi wandering the streets baffled and soupless.

They did finally send somebody to Michaels to buy white stencil to put up the new name on the windows. This stemmed the confusion at least for this diner, but others who walk in never having been to Saigon Grille wouldn't have known the difference anyway -- they kept the opulent interior exactly the same. Red walls. Slanted mirrors. Wicker-backed chairs. It's a pretty space that works.

What's changed is the menu. Previously, Saigon Grille featured big ticket items like the $16 mien xao cua (stir fried vermicelli noodles with crab meat) and baked catfish. It was optimistically ambitious cuisine for a neighborhood that just wanted pho. Wisely, Pho Ha Noi got the message: No one wants to pay more than $10 on Vietnamese food, even in Irvine.

Now just the basics are offered at prices slightly higher than Little Saigon rates, but dramatically lower than its predecessor. And they're still adjusting them to appease the stingy nature of pho-eaters -- the lunch specials were marked down by a buck in the last month. $6.95 now gets you a bowl of pho, a crispy egg roll made from rice-paper, and a soft drink.

As for their titular noodle soup, it's sweeter and richer but otherwise identical and indistinguishable from those served on Bolsa St.

However, for those who suffer from pho fatigue (or as I like to call it, pho-tigue), there's the hu tieu mi dac biet which retails at about $7. In a bowl and over two types of noodle (crinkly egg and jelly-clear glass), a hot pork/chicken broth is poured. Then on comes toppings of steamed shrimp, fish balls, slices of pork, curly cuts of squid and two boiled quail eggs. Some float, some sink; all are welcome, especially the quail eggs.

Torn leaves of iceberg lettuce, a few sprinkles of fried onion, some cilantro, and scallions give it color and crunch. Though the broth lacks the lip-smacking presence of pork fat requisite in the best versions of the dish, it's almost a carbon copy of Pho Hung Vuong's bowl of the same name. Now if only Saigon Grille served it all along...

Pho Ha Noi
14021 Jeffrey Rd.
Irvine, CA 92602

California Asian Bistro - Fullerton


At 10:52 AM, Blogger Nguyen Duong said...

pho is sooooo good on cold rainy days like today. did you see the register headline story today? crazy. good thing i've never been to any of those places on their hit list.

At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elmo, is the address 14201 or 14021? Yelp seems to contradict what you have here:

Otherwise I'm looking forward to trying this place for lunch sometime this week.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


I rushed over there to read the article, and most of the restaurants I've been to are in the "cleanest" list. But then, as long as they're not spitting or blowing their nose into the food, I'll excuse a lot, so long as it's good.


D'oh! I would've made more people confused there. My mistake, I mistyped it. It is 14021. The receipt for my lunch confirms it. Thanks for catching it!

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Diamond Dog said...

I have been to this place and liked it a lot. Their CAfe Su Da is exceptionally flavorful.

While I have you here, do you know someplace besides Favori that does a great baked whole catfish?

At 1:29 AM, Blogger Juliet said...

No one wants to pay big money for Vietnamese food. The beauty of it is that it's healthy, delicious and inexpensive. Good thing this place got that message.

I like the Hue-styled spicy noodle soup. Did you notice if they serve that?

I really liked the restaurant near the big 99 Ranch Market. What's that one called? I forget

At 4:04 PM, Blogger Melissa said...

I hadn't heard about the register article until just now - thanks windo!

I just tried this place a week and a half ago, as it is so close to my office and I thought maybe they were getting tired of my newly-addicted self over at pho bo vang in lake forest. which I now see has a C rating. O_o

anyway, I got the pork spring rolls (tasty sweet pork) and the rare sirloin pho. I thought it was rather good. nothing seems to top bo vang for me (well, since I haven't actually been to little saigon yet), but this was darn good. I could really taste the star anise.


har har. ;P

At 11:18 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Diamond Dog,

From my good friend Cecile, there's a better baked catfish place in the 99-Cent-Only plaza on Brookhurst and Westminster. This I have to check out myself! Favori's was good, but I wasn't blown away as much as I expected to be. This was about a decade ago though.


Aw shucks...I forgot that one in my count. So really there are six Vietnamese restaurants in Irvine. That one is called Thanh. Thanks for the reminder. And bun bu hue is something I've yet to taste. I've been meaning to though. I really need to do it soon. The weather here has been cooooold! I'm sure you have no idea how cold it is here! It's freaking 50 degrees! *WINK*


You're right. The anise flavor was front and center. Very pronounced, and I liked it! Even if I'm pho-tigued!

At 10:03 AM, Blogger KirkK said...

Hey Elmo - Mmmmm Hu Tieu Mi - I love the combination of textures! I like mine's "dry".....

At 8:23 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


I keep forgetting to get it "dry". I did once, at Kim Loan in Fullerton, and they put this porky red sauce over the noodles....yummmyyy!

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Liz said...

I never get pho-tigued. I used to eat it for breakfast with my dad on the weekends when I was living in the Bay Area.

At 10:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another informative review to keep in mind when we're down in Irvine! I think Saigon Grille's old owner opened up the new Xanh Bistro in Fountain Valley. You should check them out and give us your comparisons. Give us more of your guidance, master!

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this post defintely makes me want to expand my pho experience. I've only had maybe a few types of pho before--beef, beef tendon, fish balls, etc.--but have never had pho with quail eggs before. Sounds delicious.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger michellep said...

Love your blog. Very helpful, especially for someone new to OC (Irvine) like myself. One suggestion though. I think it would be helpful if you used tags for your posts. Tags like: type of cuisine, pricepoints, and perhaps locations. It might help your blog be more searchable and user friendly.

I plan to visit often when my husband and I are in search of a new place to dine! Thanks!

At 11:41 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Truth be told, I get tired of most everything when I have too much. Thankfully, I haven't had pho in while, so this tasted extra good.


I had no idea they are behind Xanh Bistro. In that case, awesome! I must try! And I'm a slave than a master -- a slave to food and this blogging addiction!


Although I'm sure someone's put a quail egg in pho before, unfortunately the quail eggs I had were in the Hu Tieu dish. Still great though! Who wouldn't love quail eggs!


Great suggestion. I've been meaning to do that at some point. Now if I can get off my duff and do it. I wish I did it when I started. Now I have three/five years of back log to sort through!

At 11:53 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Ah, but how is the broth? You know how I feel about bad pho broth. I've got the pitchforks, torches, and ropes in my trunk. =D

At 11:55 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

This looks so great. I can't wait to try it. The only pho I've actually had recently is, gasp, vegan from Au Lac in Fountain Valley. Though it sounds heretical, their pho and other vegan Vietnamese delights are pretty darn tasty (and reasonably priced, toboot).

At 4:57 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Honestly, I can't tell good pho broth from the great pho anymore. As long as it doesn't trigger a gag reflex (too salty, too much MSG, too light) I suck it down. This one though was a lot sweeter and more-anisey than usual...which I interpreted as 'good'.


Hey veggie pho is still pho, especially if it's made my Vietnamese people who know what pho should taste like. Kinda like New Mexico and Pace Picante Sauce!

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Sushi Legs said...

I used to live on Orange County and sadly, never discovered this place :( I am now 6 hours away by plane ... poor, sushi legs!

At 11:32 PM, Blogger Brigitte said...

Another Vietnamese restaurant in Irvine is Thanh Restaurant in Culver Plaza.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger joanh said...

OMG pho-tigue. i'm cracking up. someday there will be a food blogger's dictionary. or blog.

At 7:06 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Sushi Legs,

Aw! Poor Sushi Legs! Well, you can always visit! But I'm sure you've got food specialties of your very own in your neck of the woods.


Ah. Yes. Thanh. I've been there. But somehow I forgot about it.


And I nominate pho-tigue to be in said dictionary!


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