Restaurant Review #252: Pho 21, Canoga Park

No. 77, Spring rolls, $5.25
After making the long trek from my house to San Gabriel to get my Golden Deli fix, I decided I needed to find a quality Vietnamese restaurant that wasn't so far away. Pho 21 seemed to fit the bill with its extensive menu and stellar Yelp reviews (4.5 stars out of 113 reviews). I studied the menu and came up with $45 worth of food I wanted to order. At most Vietnamese restaurants, including this one, that's a whole lot of food. Way too much for one person, even one who likes leftovers. So I scaled down to $25--that was my total bill, including tax, for everything you see here.

Unfortunately, Pho 21 is no Golden Deli. For one, their fried spring rolls taste like the fried spring rolls you'll get at any Vietnamese restaurant, whereas Golden Deli's are the best spring rolls known to man (indisputable fact). Pho 21 uses chicken and Golden Deli uses pork, so that accounts for at least part of the difference. Spring rolls aside, Pho 21 is still above average overall.

No. 46: Squid, "crab," shrimp, beef, and vegetable accompaniment to crispy chow mein, $6.95
I decided to be adventurous and try something new--what I thought was going to be a pan-fried noodle dish. I probably thought that because I ordered from the section of the menu titled "Stired Fried Noodle." Unfortunately, what I got was a soup-like dish with dry, snack-type chow mein noodles, except not as golden brown or as thick as the Chinese kind you might buy at Vons (but much tastier).

No. 46: Crispy chow mein
 The broth-like sauce that the protein and vegetables came in was delicious. The squid was on the tough side and the crab was, of course, fake (but still tasty). The chow mein noodles--well, even though they weren't the moist, greasy, pan-fried noodles I was hoping for, I still wanted to shove them in my face and devour them all at once. Their shape requires a bit of restraint, however; you have to break the long strands into pieces to eat them. I tried eating them on top of my soup, but didn't really see the point--it was difficult to get them into my mouth without dribbling soup down my chin, and the broth made the noodles almost instantly soggy. So I wouldn't order this dish again. It just didn't work.

Charbroiled beef with crushed rice

The charbroiled beef tasted exactly as it should. What else can you say about charbroiled beef? It's never the most tender cut of meat, but the sweet marinade makes up for it. I would order that again.

Pho 21 does have a couple of advantages over Golden Deli besides location. First, they offer crushed rice. I love crushed rice doused with nuoc cham. I don't much care for regular rice, but the couscous-like texture of crushed rice really appeals to me. Second, Pho 21 sells soursop shakes, and I don't know where else to get those without driving to Orange County or going to an international grocery store, buying frozen soursop paste, and making a shake myself. Pho 21 also has a seriously extensive vegetarian menu, whereas many Vietnamese restaurants have zero vegetarian options.

I got my order to go, but had plenty of time to observe the restaurant's decor and atmosphere while I waited. It's about like any other Vietnamese restaurant--casual, kind of cheap and not totally clean, with a wall-mounted TV in one corner and tons of condiments on the table. It would be an acceptable place to dine for a casual lunch, but I wouldn't eat there on date night. My food was ready in a perfectly reasonable amount of time, but not in the lightning-speed time typical of other Vietnamese restaurants. The online menu makes the restaurant seem like it will be nicer than it actually is.

Parking is a little annoying, but typical for this part of town. You have to park in a small space in the alley behind the restaurant where you think there's a 50% chance of your car getting dinged or smashed into, then walk around the corner to enter from the front and get your food. The area seemed a tad sketchy to me, but that's Canoga Park for you. I now have a greater appreciation for India's Sweets and Spices' policy of letting customers enter through the back door.

All in all, Pho 21 has not won a special place in my heart as my new favorite Vietnamese restaurant. That being said, if I were in the Canoga Park area, I would go back and try some different dishes--particularly the Japanese curry, which is hard to find.

Pho 21
21525 Sherman Way
Canoga Park, CA 91303
(818) 854-6622
Hours: Mon, Wed-Sun 10 am - 9 pm
Pho 21 website
Pho 21 menu


Restaurant Review #251, Leila's, Oak Park

Grilled lamb loin with Israeli couscous and apricot sauce
If you think all the delicious gourmet restaurants are in LA County, Leila's in Oak Park, a small pocket of Ventura County near Agoura Hills, will prove you wrong. There's also plenty of free parking, and the surrounding area makes for a beautiful drive during the day.

Soup of the day: Corn chowder, $8

The restaurant is pricey for the 'burbs, but the portion sizes are plenty generous--not what you'd get at Chili's, but larger than usual for a fine-dining restaurant. Most appetizers and salads are $11-$17. Most entrees are in the $20s, and desserts are $7-$8.
Crab and mango appetizer

One might argue that a number of the plates are embarrassingly overdecorated, but I'm willing to overlook a Pollock-inspired design if the food is tasty.
Grilled shrimp appetizer

The grilled shrimp appetizer with grilled lemon slices and chili dipping sauce was some of the most flavorful shrimp dishes I've ever had. For me, it was the most memorable dish of the night. (Of course, I was also the hungriest at this point in the evening.)

This dish didn't really do it for me. I don't think steak belongs on top of french fries (it makes the fries soggy) and the meat-to-fry ratio was really out of whack.

Complimentary bread with garlic, lemon, and herb-infused olive oil

Ice cream puff (rapidly melting)
Chocolate pyramid

Dining room
The restaurant has a fair number of tables, but the dining room is divided into separate sections, so it feels intimate and isn't too noisy. The service was rather slow and indifferent, however. I have few complaints about the food, but for some reason I haven't felt compelled to return to Leila's.

706 Lindero Canyon Road
Oak Park, CA 91377
(818) 707-6939
Leila's website
Leila's menu