This article originally appeared in The Bold Italic on 01/30/2014 and is now databased on Everything Ecstatic for safekeeping.
It’s always slightly chilly in SF. What better way to cure the cool-weather blues than with hot, chunky noodle soups? At its most basic, pho is Vietnamese noodle soup that’s typically made with beef stock, herbs, and spices, and simmered for several hours. Pho is served with rice noodles and various cuts of beef (Pho Tai) or chicken (Pho Ga). In San Francisco, the Vietnamese population’s influence is strong, and the traditional cuisine across the city reflects different styles of pho. It’s become a cultish comfort food, and we’ve ventured out to different parts of town to bring you our 11 best bowls of pho in San Francisco.
1015 Irving Street (at 11th Avenue), Inner Sunset
Go ahead and file this as the largest, beefiest bowl of pho in town. Seriously, don’t get an appetizer if this is what you order. It’s a classic combo with rare steak, well-done flank, tripe, tendon, and beef balls. The rare steak comes out really rare and finishes cooking in the hot broth. The noodles are plentiful and seemingly never-ending. If you can finish this bowl, you deserve a T-shirt.
10. #2 COMBO BEEF SOUP ATBEEF NOODLE HOUSE
1816 Irving Street (at 19th Avenue), Sunset
This place is not to be confused with PPQ Dungeness Island, which serves amazing garlic crab on Clement Street. This PPQ dubs itself “Beef Noodle House,” and if that’s not a hint on what to order, I don’t know what is. The broth is beefy – not overly salted – and has such a soft flavor that I found myself taking more spoonfuls of just broth than I normally would. The noodles come out still cooking in the bowl, which gives you time to dress up your pho. The Angus certified brisket is especially delicious, with its defined fibers, and the tendon is melt-in-your-mouth-type stuff. Ultimately, the meat-to-noodle ratio here is among the highest.
9. BUN BO HUE AT JASMINE GARDEN
708 14th Street (at Church Street), Castro/Upper Market
A noodle soup from the Hue region of Vietnam, this spicy lemongrass-infused beef soup is amazing. The beef is so tender, and the lemongrass essence stands out on every bite. It’s almost like eating Tom Yum (Thai shrimp and lemongrass soup) blended with this oily and super-spicy broth. You won’t feel the need to add any Sriracha or hoisin sauce to this one; it already has a complete flavor profile. Also, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a fist-bump on the way out. (Bonus tip: if you order the spring roll appetizers, they present them in bamboo baskets made to look like water-carrying pots; it’s awesome.)
8. PHO GA AT JOY HING
710 Kearny Street (at Clay Street), Chinatown
This is a classic northern-Vietnamese-style Pho Ga (not served with sprouts or basil). I sat next to a regular named John in the gorgeously well-lit dining room, and the experience is best told through his words:
On the fresh and chunky chicken: “The chicken is mad fresh . . . not that frozen stuff. It’s like they just killed it or something.”
On the chicken texture: “Chicken is bomb.” [takes a bite] “Yeeea . . . it’s soft!”
On the small saucer of garlic and ginger in oil to put in your soup: “My nose was stuffed. Now I can breathe!”
John nails it. The chicken is delicate; the oiliness is terrific; and the flat noodles are the jam.
637 Larkin Street (at Ellis Street), Little Saigon/Tenderloin (Cash Only)
“It’s Pho-nomenal!” their website states. They should also probably add, “It’s no bullshit!” The minute you sit down at this plain and kinda seedy-looking Little Saigon noodle shop, your tea is placed in front of you. You’ll be well into your bowl of pho less than 10 minutes after walking through the door. This is a solid, no-frills spot, and the symbiotic balance of brisket and well-done flank finish cooking in your bowl along with your noodles. The broth is just right, and there’s a spicy element that comes through here better than most. (Cash only.)
937 Howard Street (at 5th Street), SOMA
Tin’s Pho Bo (beef) isn’t much to write home about, but the coolest part about this place is the simple squeeze containers of Sriracha and hoisin sauce at every table. Call me an OCD pho eater, but Tin’s sauce system just answered the following really annoying question for me: Do you use your chopsticks to inefficiently scoop the sauces on the bites? Some places have a tiny spoon in a pepper-sauce container, but what if you put that in the bowl you’ve been eating from, and then the next customer does too? Do you use your soup spoon and scoop up the sauces? Arrgh! Anyways, at Tin’s, problem solved with these bad boys:
665 Valencia Street (at 18th Street), Mission
The Mission finally has a Vietnamese noodle house it can be proud of. Mau is a modern restaurant that even has an extensive wine and beer selection. Hu Tieu isn’t your traditional pho, so to speak. It’s in a garlic chicken broth with delicious sliced xa-xiu pork, lots of white-meat chicken, a giant shrimp, and ground pork. The broth was light and flavorful and stayed as such throughout the meal without getting thick (for a change). The ground pork makes for meaty bites all the way to the end. Solid effort from Mau. I’m looking forward to many return trips.
1833 Irving Street (at 19th Avenue), Sunset
Best tripe I’ve had in any bowl of beef pho. It was firm and perfect. The broth was light and beefy, and the noodles were soft and not clumpy at all. This is how the balanced textures should be. Kevin’s beef pho is the gift that keeps on giving – you keep finding chunks of meat all the way to the bottom of the bowl. The big dining room is well lit and just has a cooler vibe than PPQ’s across the street. (Bonus tip: the shrimp-cakes appetizer, with their crispy dough, are a must.)
2511 Noriega Street (at 32nd Avenue), Outer Sunset (Cash Only)
Quan Ngon is worth a trip to the Outer Sunset to experience their Pho Ga (if you don’t live there already, of course). The orange/brown pepper sauce at every table is the single-best addition to any bowl in SF. The combination of the peppery oil in the hot bowl of broth filled with noodles and strips of both white- and dark-meat chicken creates a distinct flavor in their Pho Ga that you’ll be pining for long after you leave. (Bonus tip: the imperial rolls here have a very complete setup with noodles and sweet pickled carrot and radish.)
3. PHO DAC BIET AT GOLDEN STAR VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT
11 Walter U Lum Place (off of Kearny Street and Grant Street), Chinatown (Cash Only)
Across from Portsmouth Square, with the Transamerica Pyramid in the foreground, I recommend a nice stroll through Chinatown up Grant Street to get here. Golden Star boasts the truest beef broth of them all; it’s so light and delicious. The ratio of tendon and tripe to beef was solid. Nothing really dominated, and the fatty, thin-sliced beef gave it a unique rustic flavor that felt authentic. While the tendon doesn’t compare to PPQ’s, the beef broth was the best I’ve ever had. (This place gets really busy on weekends!)
645 Larkin Street (at Ellis Street), Little Saigon, Tenderloin (also SOMA and Civic Center locations) (Cash Only)
Let’s be real here – Turtle Tower is all it’s cracked up to be. This northern-style (Hanoi) pho restaurant is mentioned anytime Bay Area pho gets brought up, and it’s with good reason. It’s not often that I make it to the bottom of a bowl of pho, drinking all the broth. But their chicken consomme broth is so light and delicious that I found myself with bowl in hand, taking down every drop til the end. With this pho, it’s like your grandma made Vietnamese-style chicken soup. The flat rice noodles are so silky and delicate that you can just spoon it up after a while, and you’ll get broth, chunks of chicken, and noodles without having to work too hard for it. The green onion and cilantro really come through nicely.
1. PHO TAI MEM (FILET MIGNON PHO) AT MISS SAIGON
100 6th Street (corner of Mission Street), SOMA/Civic Center
Ah, the good old number 17 at Miss SaiGon. The filet mignon pho here is the absolute TRUTH. I started working on this list looking for local pho that would top Miss SaiGon’s, but in the end, I went back, and it’s still the best in SF. This is some real filet mignon right here too. We’re not talkin’ thin slices; we’re talkin’ chunks and lots of ’em. The veggies are always crisp, and the pho is always consistent. Mission Street and 6th Street isn’t the greatest corner in town, but once you walk through the glass doors into this Vietnamese food heaven, it’s an ultimate Asian comfort-food experience. It’s always busy, and the owners are pleasant people. It’s a great place for groups. Make sure to start with the spring rolls and crab rangoons!