Tasty Pho to Chase Winter Chills
UPDATED 12/29/09: This restaurant closed down in early 2009.
726 Clement St. (between 8th and 9th), San Francisco
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Major credit cards accepted, no reservations
This is the best time to get Asian soup noodles, and one of my favorites as some of you know is the Vietnamese pho. When in San Francisco, you might think I’d go to the Little Saigon district in the Tenderloin, but I rarely find myself in that neighborhood for any other reasons.
So I was excited to discover Quan Ngon Vietnamese Noodle House on Clement Street, aka “second Chinatown” or “new Chinatown.” It’s a much more convenient spot to get a warm bowl of pho because it’s right across the street from one of my regular Asian grocery stores, the New May Wah.
First off, let’s dispense with the issue about the name. For some reason, some people have referred to this restaurant as Pho Ha Noi. But the storefront says Quan Ngon. On their menus, they have both names. My suspicion (I know, I really should have confirmed with the wait staff) is that the place is called Quan Ngon and Pho Ha Noi refers to the northern-style pho dishes they offer (Hanoi is in North Vietnam opposite of Ho Chi Minh City in the south.) So I’m just going to refer to this place as Quan Ngon from here on out.
Walking into Quan Ngon, you can tell right away that this isn’t your normal pho noodle joint. The décor is fresh and contemporary, almost like a Chinese furniture showroom with its sparkling lacquered furniture and brightly colored walls. The dining area has several tables and a flat-screen TV in the back.
Pho is more a specialty of south Vietnam, so Quan Ngon’s pho offerings are limited, with only seven choices compared to the full page you sometimes find at other pho restaurants. Along with your typical rare beef pho, there were some Chinese-influenced dishes such as the duck with preserved vegetables pho.
On my first visit, I ordered the Pho Tai/Bo Vien or Rare Beef and Beef Balls pho ($6.95 for the large). At Quan Ngon, the beef pho is served without an accompanying dish of bean sprouts and basil. They do bring a tiny dish of jalapeno peppers and lime to spice up your pho, but they probably want you to just savor the broth as is because it really is delicious.
I guess northern-style pho uses more the wide flat rice noodles, which some people enjoy and I generally do not. I’m a big fan of the southern-style noodles that are almost transparent. Still, the way Quan Ngon cooked their noodles to al dente consistency was spot on, making me a convert of the flat noodles when done right.
My big bowl of beef pho had tender thin slices of beef and several beef balls. (I have yet to find a pho shop that serves tender beef balls, so the fact that the beef balls here were dense and rubbery wasn’t a big surprise.) The overall dish was enjoyable, especially the depth of flavors in the broth. It really hit the spot on a cold day.
I returned a second time because I was curious about the rest of the menu. There were a couple of banh minh sandwiches and several specialty dishes. But I decided to try the Bun Thit Nuong or BBQ Pork with Vermicelli ($6.75). Bun dishes are another classic Vietnamese dish but the noodles are served without the soup and are dressed in the ubiquitous fish sauce.
I like to order this dish as a baseline marker of a Vietnamese restaurant because the key is how good they marinate their BBQ pork. At Quan Ngon, their pork was disappointing. While thinly sliced the way I like them, they were on the dark side, signaling the fact that they were probably cooked too long and were saltier in taste.
The polarizing experiences from my two visits had me torn about Quan Ngon. So I returned one more time, just so that I could enjoy the pho broth once more. This time I ordered the Bun Rieu pho ($6.25 for a small bowl), which is Crab Meat and Tomato pho.
For this pho, the server brought out a tiny plate of basil leaves and shredded cabbage. There was also a dollop of Vietnamese shrimp paste, which is pungent by itself but not so bad when mixed into your broth.
The pho looked appetizing but the ingredients weren’t as advertised—or at least not what I expected. Instead of crab meat, I tasted something that might have been minced crab paste made into balls. The broth had the nice coloring from the tomatoes, but I didn’t detect that sweet crab flavor, which is a shame being in San Francisco during crab season.
Still, I enjoyed my Bun Rieu. Not as much as my beef pho, which had a nice clean flavor, but it was still satisfying. Just don’t order it thinking you’ll get any real crab meat.
Quan Ngon doesn’t have an extensive menu, but it does do pho well. Its open dining room and clean environment makes it one of the more fancier pho shops in town—a place you could bring an out-of-town guest or just warm yourself on a cold winter day.
Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Go for the pho)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Tasty Pho to Chase Winter Chills