Still steaming from this week’s District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
There’s long been a Vietnamese void in Long Beach. Within our city limits, most of the soupy standards are well represented, but you won’t find many of the rigorously regional plates that define locales like Little Saigon. Noticeably lacking, for example, are spots serving bún bo Hue, a lava-looking noodle soup from central Vietnam that, depending on your restaurant preference, might boast a broth colored in part by congealed pig’s blood. Yet even with the absence of some specialty recipes, Long Beach’s Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t completely suffer. After all, sometimes your appetite needs familiar flavors, plates begging for a taste of assimilation. And for that, look squarely to Pho America.
The restaurant covers a predictably stuccoed corner on Pacific Avenue just past PCH, where you can almost hear the electric hum of the Blue Line and the circular traffic cruising up and down Pine Avenue. Inside, the place is clean without being sterile, inviting without passing into clumsy kitsch. It’s obvious, even on the first visit, how even-tempered Pho America is. The restaurant strikes a clear middle ground between authenticity and accessibility.
Starters begin staking out that conciliatory space with a long list of spring rolls. There are all the usual shrimp, pork and sausage options, though most of the translucent things tend to be stuffed with a bit too much iceberg lettuce. A drowning dip in some peanut sauce can cure this occasionally over-Americanized taste, but a better solution is just to order a plate of fried egg rolls instead—the lumpia-like logs don’t bother with such leafy fillings.
As its name suggests, most diners at Pho America opt for one of the restaurant’s eponymous bowls of pho. There are 16 variations of the noodle soup here, all of which revolve around protein swaps that drop in everything from oxtails and squid to meatballs and chicken. Except for those packing otherworldly appetites, the regular-size bowls do just fine, hugging a price point barely above $5. The rare steak is always a sure standout, but the grilled pork at Pho America might just overtake it—the crisp strips of pig pair up perfectly with the supremely soft rice noodles. There’s even a vegetarian pho crowded with tofu, broccoli and bok choy for meat-free eaters.
The single biggest section of the menu isn’t pho, however—the honor instead belongs to Pho America’s two-dozen rice dishes. Some plates only match scoops of steamed rice with popular proteins like grilled shrimp and fried fish cake, to name a few, but there are others that do a better job of diversifying your eating experience. Take the shrimp clay pot, for one, which studs a nearly basketball-size bowl of fried rice with tiny cobs of corn, peppers and scallions. Or, try the pan-fried lemongrass chicken, a classic plate that works in all the typical tastes of Vietnamese cuisine.
For lunch-level appetites, pick through the dozen or so types of vermicelli. Though the various bowls of bún do lack some crucial components (heaping helpings of purple basil and cilantro are sorely missed), they still pack in enough flavor to merit repeat eating. And chief among these choices is the grilled shrimp and pork combo. The surf-and-turf coupling soaks up its accompanying fish sauce with an almost unnatural ease.
Pho America’s menu isn’t by any means exhaustive (though it is listed thoroughly on a Web site sophisticated enough to handle online orders for easy pickup), but as a place that exists in a culinary middle ground, it shouldn’t be. The restaurant is a comfortable place with comforting classics; the dishes don’t always reach their purest pinnacles, but they do always make sure to please.
PHO AMERICA 1826 PACIFIC AVE | LONG BEACH 90806 | 562.218.0204 | PHO-AMERICA.COM | OPEN DAILY 10AM-9PM | FOOD FOR TWO $10-20