At the nondescript intersection of Menlo Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard is my happy place: two neighboring strip malls where I go on weekends to indulge in some good eating. This is where I find great Vietnamese dishes that are not ph . (Don't pronounce it “foe.” Really, it's “fuh”—like the expletive without the “ck” at the end.)
Ahem. I digress.
Pho is an unofficial symbol of Vietnamese cuisine, but like all cuisines, one dish can't represent a culture's repertoire. There are the small bites of steamed rice cakes (banh beo), sticky-rice dumplings filled with pork and shrimp (banh it) and sheets of rice noodles rolled around ground pork (banh cuon). I'll drop by Thanh Son Tofu (4616 El Cajon Blvd., Suite 15) to pick up these items and maybe the occasional carton of freshly made soymilk. I don't speak Vietnamese and know only names of dishes, and the staff doesn't speak much English. Good food, however, needs little translation.
On particularly gluttonous weekends, I'll run to the strip mall next door for egg rolls from A-Chau (4644 El Cajon Blvd., Suite 111). Egg rolls are traditionally wrapped in lettuce and herbs before being dipped in copious amounts of fish sauce, so I'll pick up lettuce and herbs from Hing Long Supermarket (4644 El Cajon Blvd., Suite 104) a few doors down. The market looks like it's in the midst of a ransacking, but the mess belies a produce section with the freshest, most lush bundles of herbs I've ever seen. Three bucks buys two big bunches of Vietnamese perilla and Vietnamese mint—my favorites.
On days when I feel like noodles, but not in the mood for pho, I go to Minh Ky (4644 El Cajon Blvd., Suite 101) for egg noodles in good broth spiked with a generous dollop of satay sauce. Ordered with a side of roast duck and washed down with strong Vietnamese iced coffee, it's a lot of food for very little cash. Influenced by Chinese immigrants to Vietnam, this type of Vietnamese noodles hits the spot as much as does.
Pho is fabulous, but there are plenty of other great Vietnamese dishes to be had. My happy place is a good start to exploring Vietnamese food outside of pho.