On my first trip to any restaurant with the word “pho” in the name, I order the special mixed ph?. Makes sense, right? If they call themselves “pho” and they can't get the pho right then what's the point? But for every food writer's rule-of-thumb there exists an exception. Enter Pho Point Loma & Grill Restaurant (2788 Midway Drive).
The pho at Pho Point Loma is underwhelming. The broad outlines of pho are there, including “beef” broth flavored with charred onions, roasted ginger and exotic spices, rice noodles and miscellaneous cuts of lean and fatty beef and tripe. But the broth seems long on MSG soup cubes and short on oxtails. While tender, the meat itself skimps on flavor. It's not a pho to write home about or, as it turns out, upon which to base a review.
On the advice of Jack Monaco, executive chef of the late-lamented San Diego culinary landmark, Piret's, I decided to give Pho Point Loma another chance and try its bo kho. It offers the stew either as pho bo kho with rice noodles or banh mi bo kho with a French baguette perfect for sopping up the stew. Go with the latter.
It's sometimes easy to forget France ruled Vietnam for nearly a century. Easy, that is, until you taste the bo kho with its carrots, onions, and deep beefy flavor and mouth feel. The melding of this French influence with Southeast Asian spices, such as lemongrass, ginger, star anise, hints of curry and Chinese 5-spice, brings the dish to heady levels. It's a cross between pho and classic oxtail Bourguignonne.
Thrilled by the bo kho I went looking deeper into the menu. Com chien bo luc lac is Pho Point Loma's version of shaken beef, served on a sizzling cast iron platter along with a plate of fried rice and vegetables. I found the lightly pickled cabbage a refreshing counterpoint to the rich and pungent flavors of the beef and its marinade, which is made from sugar, garlic, soy and fish sauce. Many of the same flavors feature in Pho Point Loma's classic BBQ pork banh mi sandwich. Hardly groundbreaking but very tasty, it's everything you want in a banh mi, including richness, a hit of acid and a good loaf of bread to soak up the flavors.
Pho Point Loma also excels with spring roll starters. It has the classic fresh (goi cuon) and fried (cha gio) spring rolls. But it also has an array of tightly rolled and perfectly grilled beef, pork and chicken spring rolls (thit cuon nuong).
The pork version is especially good. It is easy to dismiss a place based on a single dish, especially when it's the restaurant's supposed specialty. It makes sense. It just might be wrong. Go to Pho Point Loma—just not for the pho.