Adventure to find Sacramento’s best pho

The Vietnamese soup is so popular, there's even a local ’Pho Nazi.' Our writer goes good-pho hunting to discover the region's best bowl.

Nghi Do (left), mother Lang Do and Quan Do (not pictured) own and operate Pho Lotus in Elk Grove.

Nghi Do (left), mother Lang Do and Quan Do (not pictured) own and operate Pho Lotus in Elk Grove.

photo by steven chea

Philadelphia has the cheesesteak, Chicago has its deep-dish pizza. And Sacramento has pho. It's hard to find people who don't love the Vietnamese noodle soup around this town. Almost as hard as it is to find Sacramento's legendary Pho Nazi.

Sure, one angry Yelp reviewer called the south Sacramento restaurant Pho Anh Dao “Nazi Pho” after an experience there, but that’s going way overboard. Yet it was this offensive phrase—juxtaposed against years of word-of-mouth reputation that Anh Dao serves Sacramento’s best version—that piqued my curiosity.

So I searched for its address online and drove to a plaza near the corner of Stockton Boulevard and 65th Street in Sacramento’s Little Saigon neighborhood. Once there, it took 10 minutes to find parking—this on top of a 20-minute wait to be served.

For a moment, I almost agreed with the Yelp reviewer’s complaints, which included gripes about the restaurant’s limited menu and slow service, but eventually the dish arrived at the table and quickly made me forget about those criticisms.

There are other noodle dishes in the Vietnamese cuisine canon—bun bo Hue, hu tieu, sweet-and-sour fish soup, beef stew—but perhaps none is as simply delicious, or as popular as, pho: broth (chicken or beef), meat (chicken or beef), rice noodles and a pile of fresh herbs. It’s a “beloved food” in Vietnam, a whole meal in a bowl, says chef Mai Pham, who’s been cooking the dish in her Sacramento restaurants for 25 years.

I’ve come to love it, too. And thankfully, it’s not just available in Little Saigon anymore; it’s becoming trendy in downtown Sacramento, East Sacramento and surrounding suburbs.

On a personal journey to find the best bowl in town, I discover it’s more than just a delicious work of culinary art. Along the way, I meet with masters of the dish, find out how it’s linked to personal and national identity, and search for an elusive Pho Nazi chef.

A pho addiction

Sacramento winters get chilly. Sometimes we get sick, aching with a nasty cold or flu. These are both perfectly good excuses to fuel my growing pho addiction.

It’s a habit that started for me sometime in the mid-2000s, when I attended college in Southern California, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of the Southeast Asian country.

Thankfully, there’s now a pho restaurant within a few minutes’ drive pretty much anywhere in the Sacramento region. Near my suburban home about 20 minutes east of downtown, there’s Pho No. 1, Pho 54 and Pho Viet—all of which opened in the last year.

Elk Grove is also experiencing a boom, with at least five such eateries now operating within its city limits.

That’s where I sit down to learn some of the cooking basics with Nghi Do, whose family opened Pho Lotus about five years ago.

The Dos stick to a very traditional “long way” of making beef pho: Fill an 80-quart stock pot with beef bones and simmer for 12 hours. The next day, take two smaller pots to cook flank steak and brisket until it’s all tender—a process that can take another four to six hours. The soup stock combines equal parts from both of those pots. Then, in the last few hours, herbs and aromatics such as ginger, onion and star anise are added, completing the soup base.

The end result is a complex aroma and flavor of bone marrow, fresh onion and cilantro emanating from a cloudy, dark bowl of soup. It’s a “slow food,” in the literal sense that it takes a half day to make, and Do’s family sources local produce and meat to make it.

“I think that most restaurants strive to keep it traditional,” says Do. “You might change some of the methods you prepare just to streamline it, but we don’t really try to change the recipe.”

Today, Pho Lotus’ recipe symbolizes a steadfast tradition that’s stayed the same over the years, despite an unpredictable family journey.

Do was born in Saigon. His family immigrated to the United States in 1975, when he was only 3. Over the next decade, the family moved several times before settling in the Bay Area, where they opened a restaurant in Cupertino. Do was 8 at the time and remembers his parents, first-time restaurant owners who also had jobs in the technology industry, dropping him off at the eatery to be baby-sat by the cook. Sometimes he’d take customers’ orders. The venture failed after two years.

The family eventually opened another, more successful restaurant in San Jose in 1991 and then, later, one in Sunnyvale. In 2000, Do’s parents ostensibly retired and moved to Elk Grove, where they eventually opened Pho Lotus with the help of Do’s brother. Do, splitting his time between Elk Grove and a Bay Area tech job, finally moved north and now shares management duties with his parents.

“[My parents] are getting older. They should be retired, but a lot of the traditional Vietnamese thinking is that you work ’til you’re dead,” Do says.

Today, Do says he and his family feel settled at home in Elk Grove where the Vietnamese community is large, more than 7,000 residents—double the number recorded in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Elk Grove’s actually one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and on a recent weekday inside Pho Lotus, it sure looks like it.

“We have all sorts of Asian customers—you name it, [plus] Mexican, African-American, Caucasian,” says Do.

Food, as always, is a great bridge between cultures, he says.

“We get cowboys down here from Galt, who’ve never had Vietnamese food. It’s great.”

Pho for everyone

I’ve certainly had my share of Vietnamese food. And I’ve probably been eating Mai Pham’s pho since I was a kid. Her Lemon Grass Restaurant opened in 1989, and it’s my parents’ favorite restaurant: My mom has a signed copy of one of Pham’s cookbooks, and my dad had his 50th birthday party there.

Now, as I finally get the chance to talk with the chef at her latest restaurant—Star Ginger Asian Grill & Noodle Bar in East Sacramento—it becomes clear that Pham probably knows pho better than anyone in Sacramento.

Pham’s family emigrated from Vietnam in 1975 when she was 19 and settled in Washington, D.C. Pham earned a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in 1983 and soon relocated to Sacramento to work at KXTV News10.

But after a growing ennui in her seven-year journalism career, Pham says cooking pho reinvigorated her life.

“[Opening a restaurant] was a longing to do something that would help me feel like I had become successful at assimilating with society and doing something that would help me feel more at ease or at peace with myself,” she says. “I lost my identity and who my family was and the stature that they had in Vietnam. I think that all of that was a great motivation for me to be successful, and I had to learn what to do.”

In the years that followed Lemon Grass’ opening, Pham worked up to 16 hours a day. The restaurant certainly succeeded: Customers requested cooking classes, so she taught them. Customers wanted cookbooks, so she wrote several, including Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table and The Flavors of Asia. She also taught at and earned an honorary master’s degree from The Culinary Institute of America in Napa.

Star Ginger Asian Grill & Noodle Bar chef, founder and owner Mai Pham says that pho is popular because of its warm and satisfying qualities.


The San Francisco Chronicle even hired her as a food columnist, and a 1997 article she wrote for the newspaper, titled “A Bowl of Pho,” earned her an award from the Association of Food Journalists.

“Even though my family first discovered pho in Saigon in the late 1950s, it actually originated in the north in Hanoi around the turn of the [20th] century,” she wrote in the piece. “[But] some Hanoi cultural experts with ancestors who are said to have witnessed the birth of pho believe this dish parallels the history of Vietnam, harboring both a Chinese and French connection.”

Her dedication is apparent as Pham explains that she’s traveled back to the country she once fled just to study the dish.

There, she studied trends. In rural north Vietnam, pho is often a simple farm-fresh dish that has very little spice in order to bring out the delicate flavor of the beef broth. In the south, it’s more like what diners find stateside: a bigger bowl packed with noodles, bean sprouts, herbs and condiments such as sriracha sauce, chili oil, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, pickled jalapeños.

Yet, it’s Pham’s pho ga, or chicken pho, that’s her calling card—clean, healthy and quick to assemble at the numerous Star Ginger locations currently operating across several states.

On a recent winter afternoon, Pham shows me into the kitchen and points out a huge pot of stock. In it are three or four whole chickens, several whole onions, ginger, star anise, cinnamon and assorted other spices. She eyes it carefully, explaining that it’s almost boiling and she’ll need to turn it down soon. Someone in the kitchen is instructed to keep constant watch and scoop off any sediment that floats to the top in order to keep it perfectly clear.

Back at the table, I taste the piping hot clear broth which hits me in the nose as I slurp noodles. It tastes vaguely like a Chinese soup I grew up eating: full of ginger and free-range chicken—something I’d imagine being incredibly soothing to eat when sick with a cold.

“You have to decide what you want to be good at,” says Pham. “We decided that our customers like chicken, so I didn’t want to make two [types of pho]; so I only make chicken.”

That decision made business sense. With beef pho, chefs need to boil beef bones overnight. But with Pham’s chicken pho, her restaurants can cook several pots of fresh chicken stock per day, for soup that’s fast and made to order. In 2003, she launched Star Ginger’s fast-casual concept restaurant at the University of Massachusetts, featuring Thai and Vietnamese food. Now, thanks to a 2011 partnership with Sodexo, her chicken pho can be found in places that might otherwise suffer from bland, corporate food, including Walt Disney World Resort and college campuses nationwide.

Back in Sacramento, Pham’s pho ga still exudes the warmth of her personality and culture.

“[In Vietnam], food was symbolic. It was love. It was a way to connect to Vietnamese culture,” she explains. “I see that some of the institutional food is not that great, and it’s not responding to what you see out in the streets necessarily, so I felt it was an opportunity for me to make a difference.”

All this, I’ve learned, is possible with just a bowl of soup.

The Pho Nazi

By this point in my adventure, I’ve eaten a lot of pho and learned quite a bit. But I’ve also developed a nasty cold and still need to pay a visit to Little Saigon. That’s where a particular restaurant has been holding sway over Sacramento pho lovers for nearly a decade. Despite its middling three-star average rating on Yelp, numerous complaints about poor service, atmosphere and wait times, Pho Anh Dao is consistently packed with customers.

I find a parking spot and take a seat inside where, after waiting 20 minutes for a bowl of beef pho, I finally get to taste the famous noodle soup. It’s a delicate broth, piping hot, warming the face and the belly with garlic and onion flavor—certainly worth the wait everyone complains about. Satisfied, full and finally able to breathe through a previously congested nose, I settle the check and ask if manager Henry Ha is working today.

“Yes, go back there and talk to him,” says the cashier, without hesitation.

Ha is in the back serving up bowls of pho. We greet each other, but he tells me he’s “too busy” for an interview right now. Instead, he asks for a business card, leaving me with, “Maybe I’ll give you a call.”

He seems like a nice guy, cracking a faint smile while scooping a strainer full of noodles out of a water bath. No one here’s a nazi after all.

Ha never does call—but that’s completely understandable. The restaurant seems to be packed all day, and aside from a team of servers and bus staff, it’s basically just a mom-and-son business, according to Do. Decades ago, when the Ha family operated a popular pho restaurant in San Jose, Do’s family was friends with them. Now that both families reside in Elk Grove, Do still sees Ha—who’s a few years younger—every now and then.

“They’re more laid-back, and they don’t really care about promoting their business,” says Do. “They feel like they’ve already got their business. Everybody knows them, and so they’re like, ’On our day off, we’re going to do something else.’”

There’s currently no website or working phone number for the restaurant, so it’s difficult to learn more—especially since the restaurant seems to be closed at odd hours.

But such a great bowl certainly deserves more than three stars on Yelp, I reason. So, I log in to the site and message another user who loved the restaurant.

Andrea Tram, who gave the eatery four stars, says she’s been eating at Anh Dao since she was a kid growing up in San Jose. Before she moved to Sacramento at age 10, Tram’s family visited the Ha family’s restaurant in San Jose on a weekly basis.

Now Sacramento residents, the family still eats at Anh Dao every other week.

“The broth is just very different from the other pho places that I’ve been to,” says Tram. “Even my mom, she makes pho [at home], but she’d rather eat theirs than her own. She won’t eat pho anywhere else.”

But in the end, no one’s pho obsession seems as large as Ha’s own.

“I just saw him last week; he came in to eat [at Pho Lotus],” says Do. “I give him a hard time, like, ’It’s your day off and you come in to eat pho?’”

“I gotta eat pho every day,” Ha told Do.

It becomes clear that declining an interview is possibly just another sign of Ha’s unwavering commitment to his culinary craft.

But is it the best pho in town?

That’s hard to tell. They all have subtle differences and, really, “best” is determined by personal taste. But it’s definitely one of the best. Plus, the experience of eating at Anh Dao is certainly the most memorable to me, thanks to its remarkable healing properties and its conscientious owners and devoted customers.

“It’s probably the most popular among us [pho] restaurants in Sacramento. They just basically open in the morning and close when they sell out,” says Do. “Don’t go in there expecting service, just go in there for the food.”

Especially if you’ve got a cold.