Vietnamese food is harmonious. There are many different flavors, textures and temperatures that go into one dish to create culinary harmony. Soft with the crunchy, savory with the sweet and sour, the hot and the cool – you can experience it all and even cater it to make it your own (think Sriracha, plum sauce and lime slices).
Pho, specifically, has made a name for itself in San Diego, and now more people are venturing a little further past their comfort zones to discover other traditional Vietnamese dishes. Here’s a list of my favorite local places to try some of those foods.
The bolded businesses places we highlighted in our TV segment on NBC 7.
Bún bò Huế (spicy beef noodle soup): Hoai Hue (4660 El Cajon Blvd #102, San Diego, CA 92115) and Pho Cow Cali (9170 Mira Mesa Blvd, San Diego, CA 92126)
Vietnamese egg rolls: Phuong Trang (4170 Convoy St, San Diego, CA 92111)
Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches): Saigon Sandwiches and Deli (4133 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105) and A-Chau (4644 El Cajon Blvd #111, San Diego, CA 92115)
Bún (rice noodle “salad”): Mien Trung (7530 Mesa College Dr, San Diego, CA 92111)
There are 44,000+ Vietnamese people in San Diego County, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, and they make up the second largest Asian population in the area. A few years ago, the city of San Diego designated a several-block stretch of El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights “Little Saigon.” In the 70’s and 80’s many Vietnamese immigrants ended up there after what’s known as The Fall of Saigon.
The Cao family runs Pho Hoa – a.k.a. “the pho place with the cow on it!” Pho Hoa, located at Euclid and El Cajon Boulevard, has been around since 1984. Since then, An Cao and his father have been waking up every morning at 4 A.M. to work on and perfect their broth. It’s a glorious broth, indeed! If you ask pho-enthusiasts who’ve tried it, they’ll describe it as a “clean tasting broth” (not implying others are dirty). What they mean is that it tastes pure. It tastes like nothing with the word “instant” in its name was added.
“We keep it as consistent as possible. That’s something we really hang our hats on to,” he said.
Some tasty ways to change up your pho experience – if you’re into rare meat, ask for the beef on the side. You’ll cook it as you go by dipping it in the hot soup. Ask for their house chili oil sauce. It’s fabulous. You can also ask for something called “nuoc beo,” which is the oil skimmed off the broth. Some say it gives the soup an extra punch of flavor.
Across the street you can find Hiep Diep’s family’s business, Hoai Hua, which loosely translates to “nostalgia Hue.” Hue is a city in central Vietnam known for its spicy cuisine. That is where Diep’s family is from.
“The universal language for everyone is food. We speak through our food. The culture that we have is spoken through our cuisine,” Diep said.
Hoai Hue is specifically known for its bun bo hue, which is a spicy beef noodle soup. Its ingredients include lemongrass infused beef broth, rice noodles, fresh vegetables on the side and different cuts of meat. Often times the dish includes blood cubes, but you can ask for the soup without it. The thought of eating blood may curdle some people’s, well, blood. It’s not strange tasting at all. It has a very mild mineral-like flavor that takes on the soup's flavor. It has the texture of hard jello.
“It tastes like boon marrow and bone barrow is the new thing for people to eat,” Diep said.
Bun bo hue is a dish fit for royalty. It was served to the royal family of Vietnam with Hue was the imperal capital. Ironically though, the noodle soup originated as peasant’s food, which explains the blood cubes. Plain and simple, poorer communities eat and cook with the ingredients they’re able to afford.
Hoai Hue serves many other traditional dishes like steamed rice cake. Try those too. Really delicious.
Finally, we visited Saigon Sandwiches & Deli on University Avenue. Thuyt Nguyen and her son Tom Nguyen have been making banh mi for San Diegans for decades. A banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich with a French twist.
During French colonization, the French taught Vietnamese people about baguettes, cold cut meats, pate, etc. Since Vietnam didn’t have other vegetables from Europe, they improvised with local ones like carrots and daicon. Add all those ingredients together, and there you have the banh mi!
Candice Nguyen is a news reporter at NBC 7 San Diego whose career moves have taken her to several places around the world. She believes there's no better way to celebrate different cultures than to learn about their unique cuisines. In her personal blog, Off the Eaten Path, Candice writes about her favorite places to grub around San Diego and beyond.