I first heard about this place on Eater and was a bit puzzled. I thought having a Pho stand in Zion Marketplace would be an interesting venture. It was the "marketing" and concept that I thought was kind of interesting. This place wanted to make "the pho experience more customizable".....hmmm, have you ever seen the different combinations of protein, etc, at your friendly neighborhood pho restaurant? Like all 30+ of them.....and then you have nuoc beo (rendered beef tallow), gia chin (blanched bean sprouts), etc..... Pardon me, if I don't understand....is there some innovative "concept" here? It looks like an assembly line process, something which isn't too unfamiliar having seen the kitchen areas of a couple of Pho places. On the interesting side, the "chef" Jimmy Trinh went to the CIA...on the somewhat discouraging side the "heritage" of this place is not one of my favorite pho shops.
Still it's bright, the folks on my first visit, soon after that announcement on Eater were really nice. I was kind of confused at the set-up. There's the steam/hot table and the cold station where you can pick what you want for your soup, then a large gap, then what looks like another station with the cashier at the end. The gap seems like a "dead zone", what goes on here? On this visit I ordered one of the four soup offerings....pho of course ($5.99) and moved to the middle area because I really didn't know if I should stop here or move to the register. The really nice young lady took my tray all the way to the register where I paid and made my way to the table.
The broth was very light and defatted, lacking in richness. Beef flavor was lacking, though I could make out onion and a touch of anise. It was also on the salty side, thank goodness for the lime. This isn't among my favorite bowls. The broth was also on the lukwarm side as well.
The rare steak looked nice, but was cut too thick making for a dry and tough experience. I'm not sure if it was how the meat was kept in cooled sixth-sized food pans, but I found them really lacking in flavor. The one surprise was the tendon which was pretty good.
The noodles were decent, but since it was in a clump some of it was on the cold side.
I basically cooled my heels, until I read Kirbie's post and decided to return, after all this place is really close to work. But no pho pho me this time.
I decided to try the Pho Bo Kho. The young man working the front was really enthusiastic and friendly. I noticed something a bit different this time around. My noodles were dropped into hot water and the bowl rinsed in hot water as well. I'm thinking this step was missed on my previous visit....after all, it was just after they had started business. I walked on over to the register to pay. In a move I found somewhat awkward, this time around my tray was left in the "dead zone" for me to pick up and drag to the register. This wasn't much of a problem however since the guy working the register was too busy counting his money than to acknowledge my existence. I kept thinking if I was "at Pho Hoa Huong, I'd be eating by now". Finally, after checking his drawer, walking away to talk to someone, he returned and was ready to have me pay. When he actually spoke to me he seemed a really nice young man, it was getting to this point that was rather painful for me. What ever happened to "I'll be with you in a minute"? Come to think of it though, would I expect that at, say, Pho Cow Cali, or at your neighborhood Pho shop in Hanoi?
In many ways this was much better than the straight up pho bo. While not even in the same league as the version at Pho Lucky, this had some mild richness. The beef flavor was still faint and overall the broth was still a bit thin for me. I like a nice hearty soup. The carrots were a bit too undercooked for me and the beef was still tasteless.
The dunking of the already cooked noodles made them too mushy for my taste. The heating of the bowl ensured a nice hot broth though.
I also hated the plastic spoons which were not at all suited for soup slurping......I've seen disposable Japanese style soup spoons, though the cost might be a bit too high?
It had me wondering......where this ranked in the Kearny Mesa Pho universe? I will say that this was totally not what I expected, even in a fast-casual concept, from CIA Alums who've "logged stints in Michelin starred kitchens". Though after eating at Gordon Ramsey's Plane Food nothing should surprise me, right?
Spotted Cow Viet Kitchen (in the Zion Market Food Court)
7655 Clairemont Mesa Blvd
San Diego, California 92111