Ph? Hòa is the Truth. It does ph? and only ph?. If you want spring rolls, you're out of luck. If you want bánh mì or bún, you'd best look elsewhere. Ph? Hòa is not one of those places where you can bring your xenophobic friends and expect them to find something that does not involve beef, noodles and broth.
It's a problem we have in this country—the odd notion that having something for everyone is more important than doing one thing really well. Whereas European wineries rarely offer more than one or two bottlings per vintage, American wineries frequently offer numerous products every year—some red, some white. The chain restaurants that dominate the American suburban landscape seem to live in corporate fear that they'll lose business if the burger joint doesn't offer a rib sandwich and salad, too.
On foreign shores, it's that notion itself that's foreign. A mariscos stand would never offer carne asada. A Japanese ramen house would not likely put sushi on the menu. The rest of the world, as Anthony Bourdain has observed, sees virtue in doing one thing very well.
And that's where Ph? Hòa (4717 El Cajon Blvd. in City Heights) comes in. Ph?, for the uninitiated, is Vietnamese beef noodle soup (though chicken versions are not unusual). There are generally four moving parts to a bowl of ph?: the broth, the noodles, the meat and the garnishes (bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, lime and chile peppers are common). I order the mixed ph?, featuring lean and fatty cuts, tripe, tendons and sometimes balls of ground beef. It often shows up on menus, as it did at Ph? Hòa, as ph? ??c bi?t ("special ph?").
The most important part of ph? is the rice noodles. It can be ph? without beef, but it can't be ph? without noodles. And the noodles at Ph? Hòa are exceptional. Rich and tender, they take on the essence of the broth but also bring their own flavor. Where the noodles in some ph? are tasteless starch and at the worst have a stale quality, the noodles at Ph? Hòa were delicious in their own right.
The broth, a dark and mysterious concoction, was also excellent. Where many ph? joints use soup cubes and MSG, there was none of that in this broth. It had a richness that spoke of beef bones and oxtails, charred onions and roasted ginger, as well as exotic spices such as cinnamon, star anise, cardamom and coriander.
The meat in the soup was tasty, too. The lean cuts were lean, and the fat in the brisket was not—as is often the case—boiled to rubber. It's the offal, though, that really shines: The tripe is toothsome; the tendon has that buttery consistency of perfection. Every cut was flavorful, asking only a brief dip in the sriracha sauce.
Ph? this good should be served in a palace, though, not this drab and tired interior. As dingy as the exterior is, though, at least the laughing cow on the sign is smiling. Still, at the end of the day, the ph? is all that matters. Not the décor. Not the short menu. It's all about the best ph? in San Diego.