I don't know why it surprises me so to find good Vietnamese food outside the neighborhoods with which I am comfortable. Federal and Alameda? No shock. Aurora? The town's spilling over with great Vietnamese restaurants. But even though I'd heard that the stretch of Federal Boulevard running through Westminster was turning into an up-and-coming neighborhood for second- and third-generation ethnic cooks, I'd never found a restaurant that showcased that in a solid way. Until now.
Saigon Pho is deceptive. Tucked into a new and fancy strip mall full of movie-rental operations, dry cleaners and fast-food outlets, it looks like one of those joints offering nothing more than the dim and thrice-removed flavors of the Mysterious East on a menu full of badly Photoshopped pictures rendered in hyper-saturated color. And while, yes, there are a lot of pictures on Saigon Pho's menu, those pictures are of very good and surprisingly raw and authentic Vietnamese dishes. This place offers both the meat and the bone — a suitably rough and prideful presentation of all that is good about the Southeast Asian canon.
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The menu is full of beautiful Vietnamese specialties like fried shrimp cake (which I love) and several varieties of pho (which I love even more). Sitting at table with a half-dozen new friends, I ate off-menu "Vietnamese young chicken" — essentially Cornish game hens, marinated, roasted and then put to the blade of a cleaver, served bones and all over a bowl of thick vermicelli noodles arranged atop a cold, crisp base of shredded lettuces and bean sprouts. There were the ubiquitous bowls of nuoc cham fish sauce and the requisite tall glasses of Vietnamese iced coffee (the hot coffee was served in a rocks glass, swimming in a small bowl of hot water, which I thought a unique innovation). I watched the cooks in the kitchen hefting giant, fifty-pound sacks of rice off the pallets on the floor and young customers walk away from the counter carrying boba drinks and fat straws — and I was incredibly happy to sit there talking about food, gnawing young chicken off the bone, sipping at my coffee and experiencing a new generation of suburban Vietnamese cooks and eaters trying to carve a place for themselves out of the new big-box frontier.