Pho 99 - Irvine, CA (Review w/Photos)
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Pho 99 is a bit is a mystery to me. While I know it's a Southern Californian chain with locations in City of Industry, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Lake Forest, Los Angeles, and Orange, my online research as been unable to shed any light on how extensive that chain may actually be. There seem to be Pho 99 locations in major metropolitan cities across the US, as well as in other countries.
In any case, the Pho 99 branch in Irvine is stylishly decorated in the soulless way I've come to expect from casual dining chains in Southern California. With wood tones, pseudo-artsy lighting, a fake fountain, and mass manufactured paintings on the walls, it's easily duplicated and completely forgettable.
* Lemon Soda - A generous spoonful of granulated sugar served in a glass with lemon juice, club soda, and ice. I've always found this soda to be too gritty for my taste, since the low temperature of the liquid inhibits the complete dissolution of the sugar crystals. Plus, I can make it in my kitchen in about five minutes for a lot less than the $2.25 asking price.
* Goi Cuon - Vietnamese summer rolls usually filled with some form of poached protein, rice noodles, herbs, and greens, and wrapped in a soft rice skin. The goi cuon at Pho 99 taste half finished. They have the mild saltiness with the chewy and crunchy textural components I look for, but are missing the floral astringency from of herbs. It makes a good conveyor for their very tasty peanut sauce, but if you enjoy a balance of flavors in your goi cuon, Pho 99 is not for you.
* Khai Vi Dac Biet - An appetizer platter that comes with four pieces of goi cuon, four shrimp rolls, and four pieces of nem ran. I've already covered my impression of the goi cuon above. The shrimp rolls are pretty good. Shelled shrimp are tossed in seasoning, wrapped in flour-based wrappers, and deep fried. The wrappers are light and crunchy, separating into distinct layers like filo. The shrimp are juicy with just the right amount of salt.
Nem ran are Vietnamese spring rolls. They are traditionally made with some form of ground protein, wrapped in rice skin, and deep fried. The nem ran at Pho 99 are excellent. The filling is predominantly well-seasoned ground pork, with shredded carrot and wood ear mushrooms. The outside is crunchy and actually uses the same flour based wrappers as the shrimp rolls instead of rice paper.
* Pho Dac Biet - Rice noodle soup, which come with rare and well cooked beef, brisket, tendon, and tripe. The last time I tried this, all the noodles were stuck together in a congealed mess on the bottom of the bowl. There were about two small pieces of each type of protein. The restaurant had left out the the thinly sliced onion usually placed on top for a little hint of sweetness. For the most part, the rare beef was looked just like the cooked beef, only with a bit of pink here and there.
The beef tasted ok, but was tough, dry, and overcooked. The few bits of brisket I found were mostly gristle and resisted chewing. The one piece of tendon in there was hard and crunchy. Tendon should be melt-in-your-mouth tender, not crunchy! The few wisps of tripe were impossible to chew. I might as well have tried to eat strips of surgical glove. The real blow was the broth. I've had bad broth before, but the broth in this bowl didn't even register as bad. It barely registered at all. Other than a faint, dishwater-like twang, I was in Flavor Country's Death Valley. Maybe what I was actually served was the broth of phos past. Who knows.
Adding insult to injury was a paltry plate of garnish. Half a cup of bean sprouts, one sprig of thyme, and a lime wedge were what I had to work with. Not a slice of chili to be seen. But, I was still grateful, because with the hot water they were trying to pass off as crappy broth, I needed every bit of help I could get. I added all of the garnish, tasted the broth, then added hoisin and sambal because it was still lacking. I even flagged down a waiter and asked for mam ruoc (a pungent and highly flavorful Vietnamese fermented shrimp paste), something I almost never do.
* Banh Mi - A grilled pork sandwich made with a sliced baguette. The ones at Pho 99 are about half the size of the ones at Lee's Sandwiches, but at close to double the price. There's barely any meat. The pickles are shredded carrots, and there's nary a chili to be found.
5414 Walnut Ave
Irvine, CA 92604