Dac Phuc San Jose: great pho & good banh cuon
I used to come to Dac Phuc a few years ago for northern-style pho, and stopped for no apparent reason. I went back last week because all the talk of Hung Ky banh cuon made me hanker for the banh cuon at Dac Phuc.
While there I needed to remind myself of the pho, so I also ordered a Pho Tai Gau (rare steak and fatty brisket), $4.95 for the regular size. I asked the server whether the gau has a little fat or a lot, and also asked whether that the banh cuon is poured/steamed in-house over a cloth covered steamer. He confirmed that the gau is not overly fatty, and the banh cuon is poured in house; Im not sure he understood my poor Vietnamese asking if its the cloth-covered steamer and not a nonstick pan but he kept nodding & saying yes.
The pho came first, very quickly as usual, and very scalding hot. The tai is medium rare (Ive had rare before, but maybe the broth was hotter today), and very tender. Its sliced thin, not thick as described by jatbar.com. The first spoonful reminded me why I used to like Dac Phuc; its one of the rare places that makes the broth just fine without any need for doctoring or additions. Not so salty that you need a big squirt of lime, not sweet, not overly pungent of anise. The muoi pho or pho flavor/fragrance is subtle. This is a classic bowl of northern style pho. But Ive been used to eating southern style for too long, so I wanted more muoi pho. I like that you get lime here, not lemon, and added a few drops just for that limey fragrance. By the way, the hot chile sauce is in fact very hot, and they do warn you even if you look like you can handle it.
Besides the tai meat, my order mistakenly came with tendon (gan), instead of brisket (gau), but it was a godsend of a mistake. Ive stopped ordering tendon because its never been anything special, but here, the tendon is meltingly soft, with a bit of unctuous chewiness and a hint of bounce in the chew.
After I finished my pho, the banh cuon came. This is a small plate but cheap ($4.95). The rolls are steaming hot and so is the plate, making me wonder if they simply reheated pre-made rolls by steaming this plate; but my order took over 20 minutes to arrive so Im not sure. The wrapper is very soft with a stretchy chewiness. Obviously poured over a cloth steamer and not a pan. I think the batters flour/water ratio may be on the wet side but Im picking nits. The filling has a nice balance of meat to cloud ears, but could use more pepper. The shallots are the poor point; store bought and too tough/chewy. The gio meat is served in cubes, not slices, and is just ok (kind of porky tasting). Theres not much cilantro and I added torn basil from my pho garnish plate, which really made it yummy even if its not authentic. The dipping sauce is nicely spicy but a bit too sweet, so I added the remainder of the lime from my pho garnish plate, and some splashes of nuoc mam from the table bottle. Its a good basic plate of banh cuon, and the texture is right on (better texture than Quan Das), but I dont know if it would knock any ones socks off. But maybe thats just me being picky.
But Id return for the pho any day. I used to think of Dac Phuc as a sort of Pho Nazi; their menu was very small, you had to serve your own utensils and tea, and if you started making requests youd get attitude (I once came with a friend who kept asking if they had any pho ga, or anything with chicken and was pretty much told no soup for you! as the server took away her menu. Then menu is still small, but the attitudes all gone. The server even brought me my tea!
I like pho however am ignorant as to the subtleties. Could you enlighten us enthusiastic pho newbies as to the diffs between northern and southern style pho? Is it the broth? The type of noodles? The meat garnishes offered? The veg plate garnishes offered? Chowish minds want to know.
I don't know all the diffs between northern and southern pho, but I think it's a great topic and will start a new post on the General Board (link below).
In terms of how or why I think the pho at Dac Phuc is classic northern pho, it's because it tastes more like my mom's pho (my mom is from the north), and less like the usual pho you find in San Jose pho houses: it has less saltiness, less sweetness, less anise, more beefiness, more clarity (clearer broth).
But I should also note that Dac Phuc's pho may not be 100% true nothern pho. Their garnish plate has sprouts, basil, lime and jalapenos (whereas typically northerners add only lime and chiles); their pho has thin sliced onions (I think this is a southern thing though it's become common everywhere). I couldn't tell whether Dac Phuc fresh or dried noodles (I'm not a noodle expert), but I think northern pho uses fresh.
So that's some further notes about the pho at Dac Phuc. Let's take any talk about northern vs southern pho to the General Board.
We finally tried Dac Phuc this past weekend before seeing "Flower Drum Song" in downtown San Jose. We didn't have much time, so a quick bowl of pho w/ spring rolls was a good fit on a rainy night. We got there around 6:30pm, and they close at 7:00pm. Like most pho houses, the food came out fast.
I got a regular serving of the pho tai gau while husband ordered the large bowl w/ "dac biet" offerings. Whenever I'm eating pho, I always spend the first moments smelling the broth and inspecting the appearance of it for color, clarity, and cut...scratch out the cut, that's for diamonds. :-) Well, I kinda look for cut in terms of how the garnishes and meat are cut. One can tell when it's done w/ precision and care.
Overall, Dac Phuc's showing on this night was pretty disappointing. The broth was kinda murky and had little bits of meat debris floating about. The aroma was ok, but it didn't have that complex character that I was looking for. The taste was very salty (maybe from msg?), and the body of the broth was too thick and heavy for my taste. It's possible that the end-of-the-day batch may have gotten too concentrated and deterioriated over the course of the day. They were chintzy on the meat. The noodles were overcooked and gummy. The fried spring rolls were just ok.
Verdict: Lan's down the street across from City Hall was far better. I'm looking forward to sampling more pho in San Jose over the winter...
Alice or others, have you been to Dac Phuc recently? Has anyone tried some of the other non-pho soups? Would lunch have been better?
Dac Phuc Restaurant
198 W Santa Clara St, San Jose, CA 95113
225 E Santa Clara St, San Jose, CA 95113