Restaurant Review #101: Phoreign, Sawtelle, West LA - CLOSED

Pho tai (rare beef)

Phoreign. My first thought was, "god, what a horrible name for a restaurant. There is no way this place is going to last with a name like that!" Then I realized that it might be a Vietnamese place--and it is--which makes the name slightly less painful.

So is this the reincarnation of Hanoi Cafe? I'm not positive, but I think so. When they closed, the sign said that they were moving down the street. I wasn't expecting the name change, though. I never ate at Hanoi Cafe--in fact, the first time I tried to eat there, I discovered that they'd closed--so I can't tell you if the menu or the flavors are the same. I went to Phoreign with low expectations though, due to 1) the cheesy name 2) the Westside Vietnamese curse 3) the possibility that it was a reincarnation of Hanoi Cafe, which no one seemed enthused about and 4) the gaudy, bright, oversized photos on a large sign outside the restaurant.

Bun with unfried tofu

My low expectations were pretty much fulfilled. The restaurant wasn't bad, but it was somewhere between average and mediocre (average for Westside Vietnamese, that is).

The first problem was that the water tasted funny. To be specific, it tasted like the way swimming pool water tastes when you're right next to a pool float (this spot-on observation brought to you by one of my fellow diners). It was so bad that I didn't drink it at all, in fact, and I'm no water snob. I ordered a cafe sua da instead. I ordered it hot, but it came lukewarm. There's no excuse for not being able to boil water before pouring it over my coffee.

The waiter nicely explained that I needed to wait for the water to drain through the coffee and stir it well so it would mix with the sweetened condensed milk. Yes, I am a white girl, but that doesn't mean that I have never seen a Vietnamese iced coffee before. Sigh. I have sort of noticed, though, that the Sawtelle scene really is almost entirely young 20-something Asians, so I guess I do stand out like a sore thumb. I'm so used to being surrounded by minorities, though, that I tend to think I am one. Actually, when you're surrounded by people who are different than you, that does make you a minority. The white minority. I prefer it that way, actually.

As pho is always a logical measuring stick for a Vietnamese place, that's what I ordered. It was interestingly presented, with the rare beef balled up in a rose shape, but it wasn't served hot enough, the noodles were difficult to tease away from their original clump, and the broth didn't have the complexity of flavor that one expects from a good bowl of pho.

Bun with charbroiled beef

The bun with charbroiled beef (and normally shrimp, but I ordered it sans shellfish) had flavors of lemongrass, and I could definitely taste the fishiness in the accompanying sauce. The imperial rolls had lots of ginger, which was an excellent decision. It wasn't as good as Thanh My, but it was the best dish on the table.

My other friend's dish was a tofu bun dish. She ordered the tofu not fried, which they happily accomodated, but I was a bit horrified to see that they had partially burned her imperial rolls and put them in the dish anyway. It had a different sauce than the other bun, probably because fish sauce isn't vegetarian, so I think it's safe to say that they do have a vegetarian dish on the menu, and that the pho with tofu might actually be made with vegetarian broth as well.

We ate at one of the two patio tables, adjacent to the none-too-scenic parking lot. Our orders were taken quickly and arrived promptly, but after that, we were long-forgotten. The staff was friendly, in that invisible sort of way. The interior looks nice, though narrow and small-there are only 4 or five tables, and the rest of the seats are at a long bar. The dominant color is dark wood, and they have bamboo shades in the windows. The lunch menu is abbreviated, but they do offer a couple of lunch specials that come with imperial rolls, rice, and salad for $10.95. Pho costs about $7.00, and other things are slightly cheaper. Coffee is $3.

Verdict? The only reason I will eat here again is because the location is convenient for me. Pho 99 is probably your best option for Westside Vietnamese.

2123 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025


eatdrinknbmerry said...

Amy, nice detailed review. I was also here on the 23rd. I took a look at the large photo of food they hung up and knew it wasn't too authentic. I opted for Kinchan's ramen instead.

I've never eaten at pho 99, le saigon nor the now vanished, hanoi cafe. i hear that pho 99 is probably your best bet - but you'll be spending close to $10 for a drink and bowl of pho.

i work out in west hollywood and we have a pho restaurant with an awful name as well - Phobulous. although it's also $7 a bowl, it's not bad at all. when you don't have the SGV or Bolsa around, you have no choice.

Anonymous said...

Amy, I love your reviews. Phoreign is the new name for Hanoi Cafe. It has the same owner as Blue Marlin. I hope you try other restaurants on (off) Sawtelle such as Mizu 212 and Ketchy's (reincarnated). Keep us informed.

Foodie Universe said...

Thanks to both of you for the kind words. Anonymous, I probably will not try Ketchy's, as it is mostly a burger and hotdog place (I prefer my own blue cheese and cumin burgers, and I have never been a hot dog eater).

How is the reincarnated Ketchy's different? I'm not familiar with the old one. If you've seen my Sawtelle section (link in sidebar), you'll know which restaurants I've been to and which are on my to-visit list. Eventually I will probably visit them all!

Foodie Universe said...

Wait, Phoreign has the same owner as Blue Marlin??? These Sawtelle folks sure are industrious (Asahi Ramen and Tofu-ya are another side-by-side same-owner operation!). I like Blue Marlin a lot, so maybe Phoreign has potential. Is it under the same ownership as Hanoi was? Wish I'd been to Hanoi so I could compare...

eatdrinknbmerry said...

the rent over at the La Grange is probably way too exorbitant. the hanoi cafe definitely looked nicer than phoreign. happy new year, looking forward to more of your reviews in 2006.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Amy! There are advantages to operating two restaurants next to each other, hence the Hanoi Cafe relacation. There are also advantages to changing a name when management (or lack thereof) has alienated customers. The Sawtelle and La Grange location does not have exorbitant rents. It's costly to run a restaurant. If a place is busy, it can be very profitable and the rent is negibile compared to other expenses. Proreign new location is definately a downgrade. The La Grange buildings anchors that end of the shopping (eating) strip and is an arcitectural jewel. it has better parking and better outside dining. It also has Mizu 212.

Sorry to read your remarks about Sushi-Tenn. Citysearch has it has the number one sushi restaurant in L.A. Los Angeles magizine also said it is the best. That spot was previously occupied by Art Sushi-owned by original "eat what I give you", "trust me"Nozawa

Ketchy's was on the corner of Sawtelle and La Grange until the mid eightys. A druck driver destroyed it. Try the Chinese chicken salad-it's special! I love blue cheese burgers too. D.

Anonymous said...

Hi Foodie gal,

Just wanted to say you are right on about your review of Phoreign. In early January, my boyfriend and I went driving down Sawtelle searching for a dinner spot, and noticed the new restaurant Phoreign in the strip mall. We both love pho and have eaten at good and mediocre pho restaurants. I'd have to say that of all my experiences at the fifty or so pho restaurants I've been to in the continental US, this ranked as one was one of my worst experiences. We first started by ordering the rice spring rolls, that were dried up, chewy, and fishy tasting. I know that sometimes restaurants pre-make their spring rolls, so the rice paper is a bit chewy, but after biting into these rolls, we noticed that the noodles were gummy, the shrimp was mealy, and pork smelly. It's not a good sign when food that's supposed to be fresh seems like it's been sitting in a fridge waiting to rot or be eaten by some poor soul. Somehow we managed to get through it by dunking it in enough peanut sauce, plus the fact that we were both so hungry made us feel we could eat pretty much anything.
So then we both ordered pho, and that's when we realized being hungry could only take us so far. The noodles were a big ball of gum, the soup stock was lukewarm to cold, and the worst part of all were the side garnishings (i.e., bean sprouts, thai basil leaves, green peppers). Since the bowl was frigid, I figured they ALSO kept these in the fridge or Freezer?! The bean sprouts were dark brown, basil leaves wilted and the sliced green peppers were actually so old, they were dried brown! Also, I ordered the shrimp pho and the shrimp came unpeeled, undeveined, and had been so overcooked (sitting in broth) that the shrimp was brownish in tone, instead of bright orange. I bit into it and it tasted old and mealy (surprise!). Since we had so much trouble breaking down our ball of gum and had trouble digesting the other so called food, we thought we'd complain to the waitress about the dried vegetables and soup. She seemed really apologetic, and agreed that everything looked pretty bad. So she took everything back and brought the exact same quality of food back! It was unbelievable. I don't know if she just walked to the kitchen and made a U-turn or if she actually believes that is good quality food. My boyfriend then refused to eat the food and he went to talk to the manager, who said that they were very sorry and that they always have high quality food, but for some reason it was not that way tonight. We ended up paying for the spring rolls, but didn't pay for the pho. We were still hungry but at least we didn't have to suffer through stomach flu and indigestion.
We think that this restaurant is a triple threat: it's in a bad/high rentlocation, it serves bad food, and it has a cheesy name to boot. In a few months, this restaurant will be Pho-Rent. :P J.L.
Keep up the great reviews. I may suggest a few places to you in the future as well.

joanh said...

I tried both Hanoi Cafe and Phoreign once each and never went back again...

You should definitely try Le Saigon!

Anonymous said...

coming from seattle, where there is a pho restaurant on every corner, i must say that this place is just aweful. it's extremely overpriced and the service is terrible. despite all of this i went there anyway because i had a huge craving and i work down the street. well i never got it!! there is a $15 minimum to use your credit card and even after i added some spring rolls it still wasn't enough and they would not let me use my card. i then said i would make the difference up with the tip and they still refused. i will never go to this place again and i highly reccomend you do the same