Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Battle of the Pho (Oakland)

When I did a review of the new Vietnamese restaurant Kim Huong in Oakland’s Chinatown, I focused mostly on its Hue-style dishes, not the ubiquitous pho (pronounced "fuh") soup noodles. But I wanted to go back and taste Kim Huong’s pho to see how it compares to Pho Hoa Lao II, a popular and more established pho joint that’s right across the street. To me, it seemed like the perfect setting for a battle of the pho.

So for lunch today, I went to do a taste test. Because I couldn’t really do a side-by-side comparison, I basically ate two bowls of pho back to back during my break so that the tastes from each dish would be fresh in my mind.

First up was Kim Huong, the new kid on the block. I ordered a small bowl (I had to save room for a second bowl of pho) of the “Special Combination Beef Noodle Pho” for $5.50. Five minutes later, I got a steaming bowl of pho with the side plate of bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeno slices and lime wedges.

The noodles were stuck together in a block, but I easily wrestled them loose with my chopsticks. I threw in a few bean sprouts, jalapeno and basil and started enjoying the light noodles, sweet broth and meaty delights. The special combination came with meatballs, thinly sliced flank steak, tripe, tendon and brisket. Kim Huong does a nice touch of adding very thinly sliced onions on top of all its soup noodle bowls.

I enjoyed the soup and pho, but the meatballs were rubbery. Still, there was a lot of meat in my small bowl.

My score for Kim Huong: décor, 3; service, 3; pho, 3; for a total score of 9 out of a possible 15.

Side note: Kim Huong sells its Special Combination pho in a very large bowl for $6.75.

Then it was across the street to Pho Hoa Lao II. It was definitely busier at Hoa Lao, which has the more no-nonsense layout to the joint. I sat down and ordered a small bowl of its Special Combination Pho. (Coincidentally, the small order was also $5.50, just like Kim Huong's, but Hoa Lao also has a medium bowl for $6.45 and a large for $6.90, a bit more expensive than Kim Huong.)

It took a few minutes longer to get my bowl of pho, but when it came out, it was much more prettier than Kim Huong's. Despite being in a smaller bowl, the specialty meats were arranged nicely on top in their own sections so you knew what was in the special combination. There were thinly sliced rare steak, well done flank steak, brisket, tendon and tripe. The side plate of bean sprouts, basil, jalapeno slices and lime wedges were more roughly presented than Kim Huong.

The pho noodles were bunched up together just like Kim Huong’s (must be the mass production of pho) and the soup had a similar sweet taste to it like Kim Huong’s, although I felt Hoa Lao’s soup was just a tad watery. Where it really shined was in the thinly sliced rare meat, which I believe is a true sign of a good bowl of beef pho. The meat at Kim Huong were overcooked. The tripe in Hoa Lao’s pho were also delicately shredded, which made it easier to eat.

My score for Pho Hoa Lao II: décor, 2.5; service, 2.5; pho, 4.5; for a total of 9.5 out of 15.

So the winner of the Battle of the Pho on 10th Street in Oakland goes to Pho Hoa Lao II with just a slight edge of half a point. Really, the beef and accompanying parts were much better even though the noodles and soup were virtually identical at the two places.

While Pho Hoa Lao has the better-tasting pho, I have to say Kim Huong has the better value because its large orders are $6.25 compared to $6.90 at Hoa Lao. So for value, Kim Huong wins on that count. Basically, you can’t go wrong at either place. And both in just one little street in Oakland Chinatown.

P.S. I was so glad to have that 10 blocks to walk back to my office after lunch.

Kim Huong, 304 10th St. (at Harrison), Oakland. PH: 510.836.3139.
Pho Hoa Lao II, 333 10th St. (near Webster), Oakland. PH: 510.763.8296


Anonymous said...

did u finish both bowls of soup? I think all pho taste about the same.

Now, if u see banh cuon cha lua - rolled rice cake w/ steamed pork at any Vietnamese restaurant..please let us know.

another favorite dish is bun tom thit nuong - grilled pork & shrimp over vermicelli. love that stuff too.

Chef Ben said...

Yes, I finished both bowls, although I don't usually eat the tendons and not all of the tripe. But I ate all the beef and noodles. I'm thin looking but you'd be surprise sometimes how much I can eat! ;p

Bun tom thit nuong is one of my favorites too. I actually like bun around this time because it's cooler to eat in hot weather. I think I'm ordering that next week!