Mo Pho*

By David Nelson / Photos By Sara Norris

Pho is the kind of square meal you can't cut corners on, and not just because it's served in a bowl. The most typical version of this fragrant Vietnamese soup plunges various cuts of beef and a mass of skinny rice noodles into steaming beef broth - with chopped scallions and herbs floating on top; and additional herbs, crisp bean sprouts and various sauces hanging on the side. Most restaurants also offer seafood, chicken and vegetable variations, but beef's the thing, and superior house specials crowd slices of rare and well-done steak, brisket, flank, tendon and tripe atop slippery noodles that can defy the best chopstick techniques. So use a fork to dredge up the noodles, a spoon to enjoy the broth and common sense with the sliced jalapeños and turbocharged chili sauces pho fanciers pile on to make their bowls sizzle at these San Diego soup-er stores.

LA Times reports that Pho Hoa, which has more than 70 locations in seven countries,
is the nation's largest pho chain.

* If you dislike soup puns, you'll hate Pho-netics.

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Pho Ban Mi
8991 Mira Mesa Blvd., Mira Mesa
858.271.7199

There's rarely an empty table at this somewhat upscale eatery, which offers a full menu of Vietnamese specialties (crispy crepes, stir-fries, elaborate rice entrees) in addition to 19 kinds of pho. Priced almost universally at $6.50 for a small (it's not) bowl and $7.50 for a large, these vary from soups rich with many cuts of beef to a seafood version with shrimp, squid, fish balls, imitation crab and vegetables. Dab slices of beef alternately in sweet hoisin sauce and sharp Sriracha, and by all means squeeze a hunk of lime into the bowl before the festivities commence.

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Spotted Cow Viet Kitchen
7655 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.,  Kearny Mesa
858.277.1808

In the terrifically bright food court inside of Kearny Mesa's colossal Zion Asian supermarket, Spotted Cow emphasizes the speedy nature of a pho meal. A banner over the counter more or less shrieks "Home to the first-of-its-kind Vietnamese pho made to order!" Well, yes, but the beef pho proceeds in the classic style, which the counterman builds by filling the bowl with slithering noodles as tangled as deceit, slices and snippets of five cuts of beef (tender tripe is tasty dipped in hot sauce), beef broth, scallions and herbs. A side boat of bean sprouts, jalapeño shavings and herbs accompanies the pho... and the hunt for a free table.

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Pho Noodle & Sushi Bar
550 Cedar St., Downtown
619.235.1665, phonoodlebarsd.com

This fairly new, decidedly attractive pho specialist at the base of Cortez Hill distinguishes itself by offering a sushi bar that doubles as a watering hole for happy hour patrons in search of half-price beer. The cooks are fearless with spice, so plan on eating truly piquant food if ordering entrées like the Saigon chicken. The 15 varieties of pho play the multiple beef-cut options like a lottery ticket, and the tai gau (No. 18) shows off the virtues of contrast by posing rare steak against well-done brisket.

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Pleiku Café
7596 Fay Ave., La Jolla
858.456.2069, pleiku-cafe.com

Located a few steps from the city's leading French restaurant, Tapenade, Pleiku Cafe emphasizes the Colonial French side of traditional Vietnamese cuisine with treats like hot paté served in flaky buns, and boeuf bourguignon-like beef stew served with crusty bread. Pleiku's two phos are beautifully prepared and made with chicken or a pairing of brisket and rare steak. Cilantro, basil, bean sprouts, jalapeño and lime garnish the beef pho; no cilantro with the chicken, which features a wonderfully rich broth.

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Pho Ca Dao
8373 Mira Mesa Blvd., Mira Mesa (branches in City Heights , Santee and Rancho Bernardo)
858.564.0917

Pretty much the gold standard for pho fabulists who devour the dish on a regular basis, this popular local chain is built for action. Tabletop racks offer everything needed to empty a bowl of soup fast, from utensils to sauces, napkins and so forth. Soups spill out of the kitchen steaming and fragrant, and the options seem to verge on the unlimited. The first choice, an "extra-large combo" with all kinds of beef, costs all of $4.95. Finish the bowl and you'll hear sloshing sounds as you waddle to the door.

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OB Noodle House
2218 Cable St., Ocean Beach
619.450.6868, obnoodlehouse.com

No wonder there's often a line out the door of this ever-popular noodlery a few blocks from the waves. Sixteen of the menu's 19 phos are brawny with sturdy beef stock, six meat options (steak, brisket and so forth), onions and cilantro, all served with a plate of add-ons that includes sprouts and jalapeños. There is a vegetarian pho with lightly fried tofu and fresh veggies, as well as a shredded chicken breast pho and seafood number that go down swimmingly.

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Kim's Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant
745 S. Coast Highway, Encinitas
760.942.4816, kimsvietnamese.com

North County's original Vietnamese restaurant, which attracted attention by opening in handsome restored quarters in downtown Encinitas, has maintained it through the years by serving consistently high quality, authentic cuisine. Besides what Kim's calls its "famous pho," which is elaborately flavored and irresistible to the bottom of the bowl, the restaurant offers a long menu of classics including entrancing salads and vegetarian dishes. The crisp Vietnamese crepes share well as a preface to big, bad bowls of pho.

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Saigon Star
10450 Friars Rd., Grantville
619.640.2985, phosaigonstar.com

Stylish, comfortable and just a tailgate length (or several) from Qualcomm Stadium, Saigon Star shows off its sophistication by chasing a list of 13 traditional and attractive phos with a pair of only-here specialties. The first is a pho made in the style of the former imperial capital, Hue. It sets beef flank and steak a-swim in a complicated broth that is mild, spicy and lemongrass-tart all at once. The second showers browned shallots over Vietnamese-style udon noodles garnished with shrimp, crab claws, quail eggs and mushrooms. This is the place to try meatball pho, which is like mama's cooking, but better.

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Pho Hoa
4717 El Cajon Blvd., City Heights
619.283.6431

This is it, the authentic, down-and-dirty pho experience, with TV monitors galore and enough karaoke to make anyone twist and shout. The menu kindly lists "Pho Noodle Soup for the Beginners," with some not-found-elsewhere options like steak with meatballs and all the trimmings; and "The Adventurer's Choice" with "the most unusual yet tastiest meats," including both fatty beef flank and crunchy flank. It's enough to make you sing on key.

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Pho Convoy Noodle House
4647 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa (also in Chula Vista)
858.277.0133, phoconvoy.com

One advantage of the menu at this highly authentic long-timer on Convoy Street's Asian Restaurant Row is the photographs that illustrate most dishes, revealing in advance what appetizers like the char-broiled meat rolls look like - and probably making you order some. As elsewhere, there's nothing foo-foo about the pho here, which is offered in 14 varieties, including a spicy, Hue-style house specialty comprised of well-done steak, pork meatballs and tendon.

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Pho La Jolla
3211 Holiday Ct., La Jolla
858.587.4688, pholajolla.com

Vegan egg rolls and a special kids' menu are added attractions at this pleasant, somewhat hidden place tucked away off La Jolla Village Drive. The pho bowls are piled high with colorful ingredients; the large versions will satisfy even the famished quite nicely. Large sprigs of tangy herbs wait to be plucked and tossed into the broth, which is well textured and full of flavor. Besides the many meat phos, there are specialties like a tofu and vegetable pho in vegetable broth. This is also a place to enjoy pho bo kho, a Vietnamese beef stew with rice noodles.

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Mignon Pho & Grill
3860 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa
858.278.0669, sandiegopho.com

Kudos to this friendly spot for creating an a la carte pho menu that allows guests to blueprint their own bowls of steaming goodness. Choose three ingredients from a long list of beef choices and an additional list of vegetables including bok choy, carrots and broccoli. Then (for small additional charges), upgrade the bowl with an egg, filet mignon or shrimp, or make the meal gluten-free by opting for brown rice noodles. Also welcome options, try the medium-spicy Vietnamese curries served with baguette, or "boum real" soups based on an extra-savory seafood-pork-tomato broth.

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Pho Fifth Avenue
3807 5th Ave., Hillcrest
619.260.3555, phofifthavenue.com

Although the pho is fab at this Hillcrest hotspot, it's fun to pair it with a different - radically different - Pho Fifth Avenue specialty, like the shaking beef. A bold dish, it doesn't shake in its boots, but rather bravely supplies bowls the sharp flavors of finely seasoned seared beef served with fried or steamed rice. Deluxe pho options include one made with rare filet mignon, and pho tom, a chicken soup lavished with tender and succulent shrimp.

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Pho Realz?!
phorealzsd.com

Chase this mobile pho-teria around town as it moves from neighborhood farmers markets to breweries in North Park, Pacific Beach, La Jolla and beyond. Pho Realz?! serves big bowls of slow-simmered beef broth loaded with thinly sliced steak, rice noodles, scallions, cilantro, bean sprouts and lime. Perky egg rolls and other Vietnamese and Cambodian specialties round out the affordable menu.

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Pho Sao Bien
1958 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach
858.272.9612, ieatpho.com

PB's Pho Sao Bien is a welcoming spot with a big menu that encompasses many kinds of Vietnamese specialties and goes long on the pho. All of the 22 varieties are generously arranged in big bowls (have an even larger serving by upping the ante $1.25) and all are meaty classics, except the "no meat pho," which is not for traditional pho-natics. On the beverage side, try a jackfruit smoothie, made with the notorious "stinky" fruit that has a wonderful flavor.

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Pho is typically eaten as a breakfast dish in Vietnam, where's it's sold at street-side stalls.

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