Without digging into the menu, Pho Ngoon, which just opened last September in a corner strip mall, is ostensibly just another Vietnamese shop among the rows and rows of Asian eateries on Valley Blvd in SGV. This particular plaza on the Northwest corner of San Gabriel Blvd and Valley Blvd is used to both shootings, as well as high turn-overs, of Vietnamese shops.
However, upon taking a second gander, one will notice little subtleties, including the cartoony font used in the signage, strewn all over the restaurant. Instead of unsightly plastic or steel desktop compartments posing as utensil holders, this SGV mom & pop deploys Ball mason jars for both chopsticks and ca phe sua da Vietnamese iced coffee. Instead of Vietnamese variety singsong shows on the telly, EDM pumps steadily from a side stereo while sports play on the LED screens. There is no rhyme nor reason.
It tastes both like a beautiful bastard child of imperialism and the Southeast Asian tropics.
The ever ubiquitous Vietnamese spring roll goi cuon was invented in the city of Hanoi. Here at Ngoon, the beef pho cuon, a trendier, more modern roll with a twist is also on offer in addition to prosaic shrimp spring rolls. Pho cuon is exactly what it sounds like: a pho roll; a tiny pho beef burrito, a pho temaki. Of course the only place to get a pho cuon in LA is at Ngoon. Also unique to this SGV joint is the house-made sua chua mit -- French-style yogurt topped with jack fruit, basil seeds and grass jelly. It tastes both like a beautiful bastard child of imperialism and the Southeast Asian tropics.
Further inspection of the menu conveys Northern Vietnamese inflection of this restaurant: bun cha Hanoi has salty, tender chunks of pork paired with rice noodles. It is the unfussy Vietnamese tsukemen. The bun thang is a product of necessity in the land where agricultural productivity is much lower than its Southern neighbors. Like the Northern-style beef pho, this "combo" chicken noodle soup borders on bland, but is as endearing as matzoh ball soup.
There's dark chicken meat, sliced egg omelette, Vietnamese lunch meat, bean sprouts, a good splash of fish sauce and plentiful angel hair rice noodles. It's the basic noodle soup that many Southern Vietnamese and Americans alike may dismiss as tasteless, but an entire region's culinary tradition and habits can be found within.
An entire region's culinary tradition and habits can be found within.
While Americans are used to the spiced and spicy beef pho noodles of the South, Northern style pho is often light on the broth spices and devoid herb accoutrements. Pho Ngoon serves its pho bac with rare "fillet mignon", plentiful scallions, suet, and a side of vegetation. But please do not go hunting for the anise and cinnamon profiles.
Prices of all the dishes clock in at between eight and nine dollars which may seem high for the neighborhood. Still, a meal for two with one appetizer, two mains and a dessert still will not cost more than $25. A splurge here for one can be the nem cua be, delicate fried crab rolls designed to be wrapped in greens) and a Vietnamese yogurt to finish. The local populace seems to go straight for the pho.
The interior at Ngoon is sparse and uncluttered save for the waving maneki-neko, but Dustin Hoang, the proprietor, brings a bit of LA hip vibe into an otherwise clean room. Five graffiti oil mash-up paintings depicting traditional Vietnamese dishes hang loudly on the wall. Hoang himself sports tattoos just like all the hip chefs of Los Angeles, but he's been to known to serve the customers in gym socks and sandals while a team of elders stir the pots slowly in the kitchen. And why not.
741 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776