Monday, January 17, 2005

Santa Clara, CA - Pho Thanh Long

Pho in a strip mall. Been there, done that, right? Well, this one stands out; in 1997, it was ranked one of the top three pho places in the South Bay. Since pho places here are as prolific as Starbucks in the city, that's not an insignificant achievement. On one hand, eight years is plenty of time for a restaurant to slide into mediocrity, but in this area of quickly-shifting restaurants (I've seen one dim sum place change ownership no less than five times in the past two years), the fact that it's been around for at least that long is a testament to its success.

Given the dense clusters of unimpressive-looking restaurants in my area, I didn't give this one a second look until I read about it in someone else's food blog. Yet, I didn't get around to trying this place until a few months later when my classmates and I were looking for a quick dinner. I had an enormous bowl of pho that night, followed up by a Vietnamese-style wonton and assorted seafood egg noodle soup two days later with my parents. A mere six days later, I returned yet again, this time at the weekend-early time of 10:00 AM, a little while after sleepily climbing out of my pjs.

Pho Thanh Long offers a morning special between 8:30 and 10:30. For $5.50, you get any regular-sized noodle soup (which happens to be more generous than most places' "large" bowls), along with Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk or soda. For any food bargain-hunter, this is as good as it gets. Quality, check; quantity, check; price, check!

On the left is the caffeine overdose that is strong Vietnamese coffee mellowed out with thick, sweet condensed milk and either 1) hot water or 2) a tall glass full of ice cubes. Whether it's from the sugar or full-bodied coffee, you'll be wide-awake after drinking this. I love it's versatility, offering comfort in the winter and refreshment in the summer. The right-hand picture is one of countless coconut-milk drink permutations. I've developed a soft spot for any of these sweet icy drinks that take the overly-heavy richness of coconut milk and thin it out with a sugar-water syrup so that it becomes a delightfully light, cool treat that goes down as easily as juice. Juice would pale in comparison to this multi-hued treat, however. This drink, sold as a 'combination drink', 'jelly drink', or some other similarly-ambiguous name, is as much fun for your tongue as it is for your eyes. Ranging in color from pale green, goldenrod yellow, rose pink, and vibrant oranges, it can be any combination of textures including fresh or canned fruits, crispy strips of gelatin, soft mung bean, hair-thin crunchy seaweed, clear tapioca pearls, corn kernels, and jewel-like jicama (a sweet member of the tuber family, not unlike a mild water chestnut) dyed red, resembling pomegranate seeds.

And the main course! This is almost exactly like their 'wonton noodle soup' that I ordered last time, sans three beef-stuffed wontons, which I didn't miss at all in the crowd of food bobbing gently in front of me. I'm a fan of both egg and rice noodles (which they cook well here, not being overcooked and soft, like some places), so I asked if I could get the soup with half egg noodles and half rice noodles. They were agreeable to that, and I think that I actually ended up with more than a single serving between the two! I happily lost myself in the circus of flavors created by two large shrimp, a cluster of beef meatballs (they are quite firm and dense, nothing like Italian meatballs, for the uninitiated), curls of squid, tender chicken chunks, steamed pork slices, and artificial crab. My own personalized fragrant potpourri stemmed from a scattering of cilantro, green onions, roasted shallots, and my additions of bean sprouts, Thai basil, and a splash of freshly-squeezed lemon juice. It was perfection, from the smooth seafood and chicken broth, firm, flavor-soaked noodles, and toothy bits of meat that I happily dipped into a hoisin-chili sauce that I mixed in a small saucer.

I've never had pho for breakfast before, but after this contentment-inducing experience, I could see it easily becoming a tradition. Plus, if you consider the typical (small) asian serving size, there's plenty offered here that you could eat an invigorating breakfast and save half for a mid-afternoon snack. You want to eat just enough to leave feeling energized, not stuffed into food-coma lethary. Just make sure you don't save the rice noodles for leftovers, otherwise they'll greedily soak up all the broth, leaving you will an overly-swollen mass of noodles!

Pho Thanh Long
2450 El Camino Real

Santa Clara, CA


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