The Koreans make good pho

    Every time I ride the bus on Telegraph, Kang Nam Pho stands out to me like a supernova. (There are these “sorta” cosmologically important exploded stars that have been on my mind for quite some time now, which is an excuse for the sparse blogging of late.) I’ve seen Chinese-owned pho places, but they never have a Chinese name. Pin Toh on Shattuck, which used to be Phở Hòa, has pho cooked by Chinese chefs, but it’s a Thai diner (talk about incognito). In my American pho encounters, Kang Nam Pho is the first instance of a Korean-owned Vietnamese diner with a Korean name. They even put the whole “Phở” with accents on their white-on-red sign, next to “강남 윌남국수” (Kang Nam Wilnam guksu, i.e., Kang Nam Vietnamese Noodle). I like this place already.

    Their menu is also all in Vietnamese, again, with complete accents albeit some misspellings; there is English description under each name and very little Korean. I vaguely remember bibimbap and bulgogi at some bottom corner of a page, but Kang Nam has things that even a common pho joint wouldn’t always have, such as hủ tíu Nam Vang (kuy teav Phnom Penh) and bò kho (noodle with beef stew). The tables are even equipped with green chopsticks, hard-to-eat spoons and sauce bottles. If only the customers didn’t flock every table that day and keep the ladies moving like shuttles in a loom, I would have asked what inspired them to make the place even more Vietnamese than a Vietnamese would, for better and for worse (the spoons…).

    After ordering the inevitables, gỏi cuốn to start and phở chín nạm gầu gân sách (brisket, tendon, tripe) to fill, I followed the usual practice of a lone diner: pull out a book and pretend to read while eavesdropping on my neighbors. However, just barely 3 minutes into opening the book, the summer rolls arrived. Casting aside my literate facade, I started rearranging the roll halves for a good pic when the noodle soup swiftly got placed in the way. They did it fast. That’s how pho should be: you got a pot o’ broth, cooked meat, and blanched noodle ready, an order comes, they all go into a bowl. It shouldn’t take more than one minute. The problem is with me: too little time for a good picture and unable to decide what to eat first. The pho won. The rolls wouldn’t get soggy waiting.

    This is one of the best pho I’ve ever had (mom-made pho not included). Deep and subtly sweet broth, chewy noodles, lots of tripe and tendon. A clean aftertaste and a warm broth until the last morsel. Little Mom, a frequent pho craver albeit a picky patron, would like this pho. Why didn’t they struct their business a little closer to campus so that I could come here for lunch? Would they serve blanched beansprout or pickle onion if I ask for it? Next time…

    Whenever I ride the bus on Telegraph, I contemplate pulling a stop request for a bowl. Perhaps I’ll go tonight in the name of celebrating Little Mom’s birthday. 😀 We’re Vietnamese, but just to go along with this post’s blending spirit: 생일축하해, 엄마! 🙂

    Address: Kang Nam Pho House
    4419 Telegraph Ave
    Oakland, CA 94609
    (510) 985-0900

    UPDATE: A 5-second roaming on the ‘net reveals that the Koreans like pho (I’m not surprised, they have plenty of beef based noodle soups) enough to make Korean pho restaurants, and generally Korean pho broths are described as more bland (if disliked) or more clean and fresh (if liked) than Vietnamese pho. For Kang Nam, I side with the latter. Which reinforces the consistency of my pho style. Those who have eaten pho with me often shake their heads at my indifference toward the sauces and the herbs: I don’t put veggies into my pho (not a single leaf), and I don’t adulterate my broth with Sriracha or the black bean sauce. I like my pho pure: beef and noodle. More Korean pho samplings are necessary before I can confirm the difference. When the supernovae start making more sense, the new quest will start. But is this quest possible in the Bay Area?

    This post is submitted to Delicious Vietnam #16, August edition, hosted by Chi Anh from Door to My Kitchen.

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    17 comments to The Koreans make good pho

    • Bob

      Oooo, that looks good. I am on a noodle kick recently (usually I guess).

    • Mai

      When my mom had me she used to eat a lot of noodles, I wonder if that caused me to like noodles or the other way around.

    • quynhchi

      Cảm ơn con gai bé nhỏ ve bai viet nay , về những món quà sinh nhat , về những viec con đã làm va nhat la ve lòng thương yêu hiếu thảo cua con đối với má và ba . Dĩ nhiên cưng biết là ba má cũng rất rất thương con phai khong ? 🙂

    • Bob

      I think it is just that noodles are good. BTW, have you ever been to Khanh Huong in Alameda, she makes a good Pho Ga.

    • Mai

      Má mới bé nhỏ 🙂

    • Mai

      Noodles *are* good, but I’m not crazy about pasta though, I just really like Asian noodles. I’ll put Khanh Huong on the to-try list. Thank you, Bob. 🙂

    • Wow, not a single leaf of herbs in your phở, Mai? I guess you prefer Northern style phở, huh. Remind me not to make phở for our dinner 🙂 I can’t eat phở without all the fixings (esp. rau om & ngò gai). Nice post, btw!

    • Mai

      Thanks, Oanh. 🙂 Yeah… what can I say… if they put the herbs into the broth before they bring it out to me, then maybe I’ll eat it… although I didn’t like it when my mom did that for me when I was little. But I do like rau om in bun bung. 🙂

    • Yup, you beat me to it. Pho apparently has a really strong foothold in South Korea. A Korean visiting scientist who came to our lab was all jonesing for his weekly trip to a pho place, but we didn’t have any good ones in Ann Arbor.
      Completely irrelevant – a 5 sec jaunt on the ‘net to look up bun bung to see if I’ve had it before (there was one Northern bun soup made with com ruou that I can never remember the name of, and my mom only made it once) yielded a site that described bun thang as ladder soup.

    • Mai

      Hahaha, ladder soup 😀 Actually I’ve had bun bung only once, and that was when I made it (I blogged about it too). It was surprisingly good, although I didn’t have doc mung, but the rau om makes the bun. I’ve never heard of bun made with com ruou though, I’ll ask my mom.
      The story of the Korean scientist sounds really cute! 😀

    • Great post! I love being surprised by the blend of cultures in “traditional cuisine.” Why can’t Koreans make a damned good bowl of pho, too? I saw a few pho restaurants in Koreatown when I used to live in Los Angeles, but wasn’t as open-minded as you were to try it out. Given this post, I should probably reconsider. Good luck on your Korean Pho Quest in the Bay Area – I might have to try a few out myself!

    • Mai

      A Korean friend of mine said that some Korean restaurants in LA have even better food than in Korea, so I wonder if their pho would be stellar too. 🙂 I haven’t (actively) found any other Korean pho houses in the area though. Let me know if you find a good one!

    • Hey! I always took the 1 bus down Telegraph too and was always intrigued by the same “PHO” sign above Kang Nam. I just graduate from UC Berkeley and move away, but I had never tried the place. Good to see that you went in and found that the place actually has good pho. When I come back in the future, I’ll have to check ’em out. (I’m Viet, btw).

      I love your thorough reviews. You tell a story and also go into relevant details. Love your posts.

    • Mai

      Thank you! 🙂 The funny thing about this place is that aside from the name, you wouldn’t know that it’s Korean. They make it so Vietnamese! 😀

    • B

      Thanks for sharing this post. I enjoyed reading it but couldn’t help but ask this. Even though it’s Korean-owned, are the cooks Vietnamese or Korean? It could be good because it’s Vietnamese who are actually doing the cooking but just asking out of curiosity. 🙂 To be honest, while it’s a little flattering that Koreans would wanna make their own version of pho (because it’s so good 😉 ), I hope that they do try to keep the basic elements of pho. However, authentic Vietnamese pho is the best! No one can beat the original stuff.

    • Mai

      Thank you for your comment, B. I think the cooks are Korean because I was sitting near the kitchen, and the hostesses were telling the cooks the orders in Korean. But you’re right, they could also be Vietnamese who can speak Korean. I don’t think Koreans actively try to make their own version of pho (except I heard that some places serve kimchi with pho, that’s just weird…), they do try to keep the original. This place in particular makes everything very Vietnamese, that’s why I think it’s good. 😉
      (Actually, some people say that this place does serve kimchi with pho too, but maybe because I don’t look Korean so they didn’t do that to me 😀 )

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