Pho #4, pho with beef brisket
Vietnamese food is not known for being vegetarian-friendly, but I became very fond of its flavors through my experiences at a very vegetarian friendly restaurant in St. Louis called Pho Grand. Pho Grand had at least 10 different tofu dishes, vegetarian spring rolls, and dipping sauce to die for. My vegetarian tendencies have seriously declined over the last year, which makes it much easier to have the proper Vietnamese food experience, but every time I see meat I still think about what I read in Fast Food Nation.
I originally went to Pho 99 after having read on Chowhound that it is one of the better Vietnamese places on the Westside (which may not be saying much). Chowhounders said that Pho 99 made a better broth than Le Saigon or Red Moon Cafe, was a bit more expensive, and was the best on the Westside but not good enough to deter them driving miles across town for something better.
After three visits to Pho 99, two visits to Le Saigon, one visit to Phoreign and no visits to Red Moon Cafe (because it seems unnecessary), I do think Pho 99 has the best Vietnamese on the Westside. They also have locations in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Lake Forest, Orange, and City of Industry (but not in Westminster, you'll notice). Given the competition, it's not hard to be the best Vietnamese on the Westside, but at least we've got somewhere decent to get our mid-week fix, when driving to OC isn't an option.
Pho with tofu
On my first visit I tried the pho with tofu, which contained deep fried tofu triangles, scallions, rice noodles, onion, cilantro, and broccoli. I of course received a plate of basil, sprouts, lime, and peppers to add at my discretion, which I did. Pho 99's serving of these condiments is notably small, but I usually don't use them at all, so for me it's not a problem. If you added the entire heaping plate of sprouts and basil that most restaurants serve, you'd no longer be eating pho--you'd be eating sprout and basil soup.
The broth alone was good, but not anything to jump up and down about. Granted, I ordered a vegetarian pho, and it was my first pho experience, but I had a feeling that I wasn't tasting what I had heard so much hype about. After adding the lime, peppers, basil, and some hot sauce, I was feeling a lot more chipper about the broth, but I think a good broth should be able to swim on its own.
I was also skeptical of putting fried tofu into a soup. Fried is supposed to equal crispy, and liquid clearly kills that possibility. It did, of course, but the tofu was still tasty. I'm a sucker for fried tofu. I found myself taking the tofu out and dipping it into my friend's fish sauce. Mmm, soggy tofu.
On my most recent visit, I tried the pho with beef brisket. The broth was much better than I remembered it (and probably a different broth than the one used for the tofu soup), but the vermicelli were still stuck together in a difficult clump. I didn't like the brisket because it was a bit fatty around the edges, so in the future I'll stick to pho tai (rare beef).
A nice thing about Pho 99 is that you can choose between a medium or a large bowl. Of course, with Pho 99's above-average prices, the medium bowl didn't save me any money, but at least I didn't leave 2/3 of a bowl behind. Soups with noodles in them do not make good leftovers--the noodles turn to mush.
Com bo nuong
I was much more excited about my friend's dish, com bo nuong (com being rice and bo nuong being marinated charbroiled beef). We've had this dish several times now. The meat is always quite tasty, though on our most recent visit it wasn't exactly served hot, and the portion size is a little small--even someone with a small appetite won't have leftovers. The fish sauce was pretty good on the rice but I would have liked it tangier. Also, where is the crushed rice? Surely they serve this outside of St. Louis (which has a significant Vietnamese population). I love crushed rice and shredded carrot drizzled in tangy fish sauce with a couple of drops of hot sauce. The word "com" actually indicates that the rice should be rough, husked, or ground, but Pho 99's rice isn't any of these.
Always a sucker for a drink I haven't tried, I also ordered a soda with preserved pickled plum. It had a light tangy plum flavor which I enjoyed. Asian plum drinks and I are dear friends and it is hard for me to go wrong with one. The lemonade is also good--not to sweet or too watery--but it tastes more like limeade than lemonade.
The atmosphere of this place is nothing to get excited about, but it is a nicer than most Vietnamese places I've been to, which tend to have hole-in-the-wall decor (or lack thereof). We dined from about 6:00-7:00pm mid-week, and there were only about 3 other tables occupied. You won't get a check--just walk up to the register after you're done. You can pay with a credit card (mc/visa only), but you can only leave your tip in cash (drop it in the plastic bucket at the register).
The food came very quickly (so quickly that it probably isn't made-to-order) and the service was very attentive--too attentive, really, as our server visited about four times in six minutes, expecting each time that the extra sixty seconds had somehow given me an epiphany about what to order. The service isn't friendly, and you won't see them much once your food arrives, but they are efficient.
Parking is free in the garage underneath the building. Street parking is a nightmare in this Brentwood-adjacent area unless you get lucky and find a meter on Wilshire.
Expect to pay around $10 per person for one entree, one drink, tax, and tip. It may not be the cheapest Vietnamese around, but it's still a great deal. If you've been to Pho 99, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
Com Bo Nuong, fish sauce, and basil, sprouts, and lime for the pho
11819 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 109 (upstairs)
(Cross street: Granville)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Pho 99 Menu (abbreviated)