It looks like one of those noodle houses on the roadside with plastic chairs, formica tables, laminated menu, and plain white neon lights. Actually, it is one, but with green cushion chairs. The atmosphere is so casual, the slurping scenes so familiar I could almost hear motorbike engines and vendors’ calls around Saigon. Everywhere I look, Berkeley brings back memories of Binh Thanh and Tan Binh Districts with its frameless mix of dashing modernity and forlorn architecture, damp narrow alleys separating discordantly colorful buildings, shoe mending stores tucked between pricey diners, Vespas, bicycles, cars, trucks, men in suit and men in rag, the only thing missing is a xich-lo. Like it or not, this world doesn’t stay outside noodle houses like Pho Hoa, you can eat while feeling life scurry on the pavement. The diners casually bring the commonest of life into their chatter. The kitchen brings the commonest of noodle soup onto the table.
But only they added a twist to it. Of course eighty percent of the menu is laminated with things every pho joint would have: pho. Pho of all varieties, Steak, Brisket, Chicken, Tendon, Flank, Tripe, Meatball. Then at the very bottom of the page, estranged by all other pho’s, is Seafood Sour.
I first heard of sour pho a few months ago. The regional specialty of northern province Lạng Sơn sounds exciting: tamarind sauce, a ladle or two of chicken broth, a handful of chicken meat and innards, fried shallot and crushed peanuts, structurally somewhat like mỳ Quảng (Quảng Nam noodle) and cao lầu (Hội An noodle). So as soon as I saw “sour pho”, I leaped at the chance. Fifteen minutes later, the eight-dollar-and-ninety-five-cent chance looked me in the eye with fiery inquisition, “maybe it’s a little too much chili paste?” I sniffed and hawked, blew and gulped, a sip of water now and then between spoonfuls of the clear red broth. It is definitely not the sour pho of Lang Son. Not only copious amount of squid, shrimp and salmon replaces chicken gizzards, but the sourness comes from pineapple and tomato instead of tamarind, and your rice noodle gets lost in the sea. It is pho and canh chua entanglement, harmoniously with joy in crescendo.
But some part of me will forever crave meat. Big chunks. Marinated. Sauce dripping. A tad of fat to loosen the muscle. Bits of tendon to brighten the chew. Meat that is bold and brown. Like a beef stew.
We found it demoted to the menu’s bottom league with Seafood Sour. Bò kho is Vietnamese beef stew with a complex wealth of tastes, a French-influenced Southerner’s display of abundance, and an ambrosial love of Mudpie. Star anise and cinnamon link bo kho with pho, annato seeds make it color-stricken like claypot fish, nuoc mam gives it the regional stamp. All for a mere $7.65. The quality doesn’t lie in the beef, but in every bite of baguette wholeheartedly dipped in that rich, peppery, daring juice. E V E R Y bite. Only found at:
Pho Hoa Noodle Soup
2272 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
UPDATE: This location is now closed.