Born and raised in Garden Grove just on the outskirts of the ever-growing Vietnamese enclave, I never really paid attention to all of the changes in Little Saigon until I left the OC and moved to Westwood for undergrad. Visiting every weekend at best, maybe less than once a month at my busiest, I finally took notice of the constant construction, the rotation of new trendy restaurants replacing older storefronts, the evolution of the city itself as its northern borders encroached on The Korean District, and the influx of traffic from local residents and out-of-town visitors alike. Many of my favorite restaurants I dined at while growing up had either closed up shop, changed owners, or hired new chefs. But not Pho 79. I could always count on Pho 79 to bring to my table a piping hot bowl of pho just the way I remembered it when I was a little girl earnestly chowing down on the tô nhỏ (literally translated as “small bowl”) with extra gân (beef tendon) while my parents withheld the toy that would accompany the kids meal until I first finished my food. (That’s right – we were eating offal before offal was cool.)
Though we’ve graduated from the college town and moved on to other Westside neighborhoods, I still do not visit home as often as I would like (and certainly not as often as my parents would like), but on those rare occasions, Pho 79 is a beloved part of my dining-out rotation. This Little Saigon icon, situated in a humble standalone building just behind a liquor store, has remained largely unchanged throughout the past 20-something years that I have frequented it. Who knows – maybe it has even stayed more or less the same since it first opened in 1979 (hence the namesake) to serve the immigrant post-war families looking for a bit of familiarity. Even the menus have seen better days and I swear they are the same exact ones that my little 3-year-old hands would thumb through, looking for the soda xí muội (salted plum soda) on the last page.
Nowadays, my beverage of choice is the cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee. I take it for granted that everyone here in LA always has somewhere else to be, so the slow-dripping French-style cà phê phin is just not a feasible option for the few Vietnamese restaurants on the Westside. Here at Pho 79 we can slow our pace, just for a bit, and let the dark roast steep at its leisure through the filter and into a mug ready and waiting with a dollop of sữa đặc (sweetened condensed milk).
Martin always gets the phở tái sách, tô xe lửa – the largest bowl (literally translated as “train bowl”) with rare steak slices and tripe. I was unable to snap a photo before he dove right in. This is his standard order and he always looks very content while slurping away, strands of rice noodles hanging askew off the edge of his bowl, so just take our word for it – it’s good.
I like to go a teeny bit fancier with my pho. I will usually order the phở tái gân bò viên, tái để riêng, tô thường – a so-called “regular” sized bowl loaded with beef tendon and beef meatballs served with rare steak slices on the side. I learned this trick from my dad. See, the broth is always so hot that by the time the chef ladles it into the bowl and the server brings the bowl to my table, the beef has overcooked. Having them bring the beef separately allows me to control the process and enjoy the beef when it has just turned a nice pale pink, cooked by the broth’s residual heat. Yum. I also go crazy with the bean sprouts, mint/herbs (traditionally ngò gai, the one that looks like a long serrated blade, and rau quê, commonly known as Thai basil) and a generous squeeze of a fresh lime wedge. In a separate dish, I will also portion out some hoisin sauce (known affectionately as tương ăn phở, or literally, “sauce to eat with pho”) and Huy Fong Foods sriracha, everyone’s favorite hot sauce. At long last, I’m all set… and Martin’s probably halfway through his train bowl at this point.
By the time we are close to finishing our meals, the coffee is ready to be stirred and poured over the tall glasses of ice. Mmm… sweet, creamy heaven with a very strong coffee essence. Starbucks lattes ain’t got nothin’ on this!
If you find yourself in Orange County and craving a hot bowl of comforting soup, I definitely recommend stopping by Pho 79. Don’t be intimidated by the alley-side driveway entrance, and don’t be deterred by the apparent lack of parking – the turnover is excellent even during lunch or dinner rush, so sooner or later, someone will be leaving and you can snag their precious parking space. Sign your name on the clipboard hanging on the door or tell a friendly waiter how many people are in your party (holding up the number on your fingers is A-OK too). Then sit back, relax, and prepare for beefy goodness that will transport you to the real streets of Saigon… or (if you’re lucky) blissful memories of your mom’s kitchen.
Check out Pho 79 Restaurant: pho79.com
9941 Hazard Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844
See their Yelp reviews here!