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Feb 21, 2010 11:13 PM

Bo Kho in Oakland

Note: I wrote this last August, and was planning on finishing it with more detailed reviews and discussion, but it doesn't look like it'll happen anytime soon. One restaurant already closed in the time I've had this on my "to do" I'm posting what I have already.... may add more as the mood strikes. /EndNote

Bo Kho, Vietnamese-style beef stew, is my favorite dish to order at Vietnamese restaurants, if they have it, so much so that I rarely order regular Pho. It differs from pho in that it typically has a stronger broth based on the cut of beef, rather than a bone-based stock like pho. It also has much more in the way of seasoning, and usually a caramelization of sugar step in making the soup. However, the recipes seem to vary a lot between establishments.
My preferred rendition has each of these elements: a “thick” broth based on beef with a good amount of connective tissue; strong seasoning containing cinnamon (cassia), star anise, five-spice and “Indian”-style yellow curry powder, and fish sauce; lemongrass and ginger. Tomato and annatto are optional to me. I find most versions around here seem to focus on cinnamon, star anise, annatto, tomato, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass, with tomato, annatto, fish sauce and ginger dominant. I think many places do not use five-spice and curry, relying mainly on star anise and perhaps cassia only. Also, many places leave the broth too thin for me, meaning they are not using enough connective tissue-containing cuts, which shortens cooking time but leaves the broth weak. Or possibly they are doctoring their pho broth, which is wrong since that is a bone-based stock. A cardinal sin to me is to use a rump-type cut, which ends up in the stew as stringy, dried-out leathery chunks of meat. The good cuts for this are “drop flank (nam)”, chuck, shank and stewed tendon.
Bo Kho is the stew itself; most places serve it as either Pho Bo Kho with the rice noodles, or Mi Bo Kho with the Cantonese-style egg noodles. Occasionally you will find Hu tieu (wide fresh rice noodles, or ho fun) or even less frequently wide egg noodles. Sometimes it can be ordered alone, with rice, or with a Vietnamese-style baguette. In noodle form it is usually but not always served with the Pho accompaniments: bean sprouts, herbs, lime and jalapeno.

New Pagolac (Oakland) (Closed)
This was my ideal; I went here 1-3 times a month for years until the owners sold the restaurant to their business partners and the recipe totally changed. That incarnation has also closed, and as of August 2009 a new restaurant seems to be in the works. It had all the elements I note above, thick broth with a heavy contribution from the yellow curry. I was sorely disappointed when the management changed, and I never went back to the successor restaurant.

Kang Nam Pho House (Oakland Telegraph Ave. about 50th)
There were some posts on this restaurant when it first opened, replacing another Korean restaurant that I never went to. When it first opened, it had one of the more common implementations, a pho-like broth but thicker due to the meat-, not bone-base. Call this the “Strong Pho” version. Less of the annatto, tomato and other seasonings. These types of Bo Kho are reasonably good, and many will like these versions as much or more as my ideal. After some months open, I had the Bo Kho and found it had changed to be exactly like the New Pagolac version; sure enough, the chef was the same as at New Pagolac, and the same woman was working the front of house. I was overjoyed. Sadly, several months later, they were out, and they had reverted to a slightly different “Strong Pho” version. A recent visit (July-August 09) showed that they have changed slightly again, to the “Tomato-Annatto medium Pho” version, with the somewhat disconcerting addition of unstewed carrot and green and red bell pepper. Still reasonably tasty, but pretty far from what I really like.

Pho Ga Huong Ca Café (Oakland 7th Ave. Clinton Square)
This version was very close to my ideal, when ordered as “stew only.” Appropriate cut of meat, strong seasoning emphasizing curry and five-spice, and overall good flavor. A bit on the more salty side, but not too much so for me. Others may not like it this salty; it was definitely one of the most salty I’ve had in Oakland. However, when ordered with egg noodles, the broth appeared to have been greatly diluted by the noodle cooking water, which, if standard practice, is appalling. If it was just a problem with the recipe, then ok. However, I will probably just order the stew alone in the future. The specialty of this place is Vietnamese style boiled chicken (similar to Hainan chicken) and that is really quite tasty here. I will definitely return for both.

Thanh Ky Chinese Restaurant (Oakland 12th St. Clinton Square)
This is a Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant that appears to specialize in noodles. They seem to do a brisk business in Trieu-chau (Chiu Chow) style dry noodles, but also have a Bo Kho. This style was somewhat new to me. It tastes different than most, seeming almost like a Cantonese style beef stew noodle, except with tomato and annatto. I suspect no lemongrass. It also was the only place in this roundup with the wide egg noodle. This was good on its own terms, but not really what I was looking for. It was packed on the weekend, and doing decent business on the weekday that I went.

Noodle Trend (Oakland International/14th at about 3rd Ave) (Now closed as of Jan 2010)
VH Noodle House (Richmond Pacific East Mall)
Between this restaurant, Thanh Ky (above) and VH Noodle House, I now consider the “Trieu-chau” style Bo Kho to be a distinct category. After trying a lot of Bo Kho in a sort period of time, I found this to be my ideal style. I ended up going here (Noodle Trend) as much as I could (my SO got tired of Bo Kho and refused to join me after two weeks of it, so I could only go when she was otherwise occupied). Noodle Trend’s was the best I have had, with VH closely following. Unfortunately, shortly after my last bowl there in December, I tried to go again and found them to be closed. Saw recently that a new Vietnamese noodle house has opened in its place. This style is thicker and more strongly flavored than the style exemplified by Pho Ga Huong Ca Café (above). The main differences (I think) are larger amounts of five-spice and curry.

Kim Huong (Oakland Chinatown, 10th at Harrison)
Last time I visited had an “eh” version without much spice, and bell pepper in the soup. No thanks. Some other items were nice, though.

Pho Huynh Hiep (Oakland 12th St. at about 16th)
Pretty good for not my ideal. This restaurant has a parking lot. Annato, anise, cinnamon, but I think cooked with proper meats to get the right body. No curry evident.

Pho Oakland #1 (Oakland 12th st. at about 12th)

Pho Anh Dao (Oakland near Lake Merritt)
Thin broth, lighter on the spices, no curry, mainly tomato and annatto.

Definitely does not have:

Pho Ga 69 (Oakland 12th st. about 15th)
I have a take out menu that lists Bo Kho, and it’s on a wall menu in the restaurant, but crossed out. No longer offered. I had a Bun Bo Hue that I thought a little bland, but this is not my dish, so will not draw any conclusions.

Miss Saigon (Grand Ave.)
No Bho Kho, but decent VN chicken salad, and open late

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  1. The missing biggie here is Pho Hoa Lao I and II, on 10th in Chinatown (II), or International Blvd (I). Both frequently mentioned on this board. I haven't been in some time.

    2 Replies
    1. re: twocents

      Great post, I was thinking about doing the same for Bun Bo Hue, which I have veered towards.

      Try Pho Huynh Hung on 2211 International (aka Pho Hoa Hung). I liked their pho when I worked in Oakland, they might have a good Bo Kho as well. Another place you should try is Pho Ao Sen on International near 2nd.

      1. re: DezzerSF

        Pho Ao Sen: I have tried it but don't remember it too clearly. I was bothered by flies that day, but think it was reasonably good. I'll have to check it out again sometime.

        I may have been to Pho Huynh Hung, or maybe I am thinking of another place... I'll have to make a note next time I drive down there.

        I had another decent one recently at the Vietnamese stand in the Emeryville Public Market. Some time ago they put up a sign that lists Beef Stew Rice Noodle as a special, and I finally got around to trying it: pretty good, five spice+extra cinnamon and star anise, and fairly heavy on the lemongrass. I could have used more body from connective tissue. The beef was a stew cut, but I am not sure if from leg or shoulder. If I had to guess I would say chuck cooked <2 hrs.

    2. Pho Ga Hai Phuong, International out past 14th ave.
      In my original set of tests, I also had bo kho at Pho Ga Hai Phuong. I don't remember it too clearly now, except that it seemed ok. Did not stick out in my mind at all except that I thought it might have tomato in it.

      Revisited Pho Ao Sen and was favorably impressed. Heavy on the annatto, but lighter on the five-spice and curry. My major complaint would be that apart from the "drop flap" meat, the other chunks of beef seemed to me to be rump, which results in chewy,stringy bits of meat. You want that in the connective tissue from the drop flap, but not in the meat itself. I could do with heavier seasoning and more lemongrass, but overall its pretty good. The meat kinda kills it for me, though.

      If anybody has seen Bo Kho on a menu not covered here, please let me know, and I'll give it a try.

      Pho Ao Sen
      1139 E 12th St, Oakland, CA

      1 Reply
      1. re: twocents

        Went to Pho Ao Sen again and thought it was better than the previous visit. The rump was not as tough, cut in smaller pieces across the grain, but what I really noticed was that the broth seemed a little bit more intense than my previous visit. The spices (five spice) and lemongrass seemed turned up slightly, and this time I really noticed and appreciated the thickness of the stew, which I expect comes from cooking the "drop flap" all the way to soft. This time I was seated at a table holding a jar of a satay-like chili sauce (as opposed to the standard chili garlic or sriracha), and on addition of this slightly salty-sweet-spicy-savory sauce, the stew really was great.

        Dining companion had a very nice com dia rice plate with grilled pork and shrimps. These plates in general look very good here. Her plate had "baked egg," which I am not familiar with, but seemed to be a kind of omelette loaf with meat, spices and glass noodles in the thicker, fluffier bottom section, topped with a very hard custard layer (which I didn't like so much). The flavor of the bottom section was good though. I have seem people sub out a fried egg instead.

        Pho Ao Sen
        1139 E 12th St, Oakland, CA

      2. A few things worthy of an update:

        A few weeks ago I ate 4 different bo khos in two days (SO out of town, left to my own devices). The contrasts were informative.

        Day 1: Pho Ao Sen for brunch. Bo kho, I am given to understand, is often served with a baguette (bahn mi) as opposed to noodles. I very much enjoyed it in this format, perhaps more so than with noodles. Typically you are served a smaller bowl than with noodles. The noodles themselves make up part of the difference, but not all. Pho Ao Sen has been getting better over my recent visits. It's a balanced broth, lemongrass, fivespice, modest cari anh dao (madras curry), and annato, and my recent visits I haven't had the super stringy bits of meat that I had complained about before. It's almost as if they had been responding to my silent, internal criticisms. Of course that's not true, but one can dream.

        Too tired to finish, will follow up later.

        Pho Ao Sen
        1139 E 12th St, Oakland, CA

        1 Reply
        1. re: twocents

          Day 1: continued, Pho Ga Huong Que Cafe for an evening snack. Their version is sweeter, with more curry and black pepper, less lemongrass and annato. I have been coming here and getting the banh mi bo kho, as my standard order. Enough for a light meal. More recently I have not noticed it being as salty as in my previous mention above. It's still pretty good, but after trying more places, I find it somewhat lacking in complexity- what I really want is a cross between this version and a more lemongrassy/annato-y version.

          Day 2: Than Thuy sandwich shop (12th st at about 7th ave, down the street and around the corner from Pho Ga Huong Que Cafe. This version is sold only as banh mi bo kho. A baguette with about a pint of beef stew with carrot and five spice. This version was sweet almost to a fault, and the baguette was not as good as at other places, but on the other hand, it was by far the cheapest at 3-3.50 ( I can't remember). I wouldn't hesitate to pick this up for take out if I didn't want to sit and eat at one of the other places.

          I also picked up bo kho (plain) from Cam Huong on International. i used to get this a lot from the branch on Webster and I had forgotten how much I liked it- heavily flavored with lemongrass, the supporting players are annatto, fish sauce and five spice. If this broth were a little richer from the meats long cooked, and the spicing a little more complex or stronger (curry and perhaps more five spice/anise), it would probably be my favorite. They do serve it with noodles, and they have pretty good baguettes here, but I just bought a large serving to go. Carrots only, although I seem to remember they often had daikon as well, which is a nice addition.

          To wrap up, Pho Ao Sen is my current favorite, and I have been returning frequently. I wish it were slightly more intense with the seasoning, and perhaps a little more lemongrass, but when doctored with a little of their house satay sauce and lime, it is very satisfying to me. The version at VH noodle in 99 ranch Richmond is also very close, but in a very different style (described above).

          Cam Huong Cafe
          702 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94606

          Huong Que Cafe
          1228 7th Ave, Oakland, CA

          Pho Ao Sen
          1139 E 12th St, Oakland, CA

        2. I just had the Bo Kho at Saigon Restaurant by Frank Ogawa Plz and thought it was pretty decent. Worth a try if you're in the area.

          1. I was talking with James Yu (wine guy at Great China) last night and Cam Huong on International came up, he told me to order "beef stew from the kitchen" (as opposed to the steam table). That way you get it put together fresh with all the accompaniments.

            Great China Restaurant
            2115 Kittredge St, Berkeley, CA 94704

            Cam Huong Cafe
            702 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94606