Ride the pho train
Pho Xe Lua5331 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95820
The only two words in Vietnamese required at a Vietnamese restaurant are dac biet. It’s swell to know bo is “beef” and heo is “pork,” and that ga is “chicken” or “poultry.” But the Rosetta Stone is dac biet, which means “special.” And like any restaurant, the best chance of waddling out happy is to go for the house’s signature dish.
This takes multiple visits to Stockton Boulevard’s Pho Xe Lua to sample its dac biets, because the menu makes War and Peace seem like CliffsNotes. There are 122 offerings, and that doesn’t count the four types of pad Thai and the four bento-box offerings. Given the restaurant’s name (in English it’s “pho train”), it shouldn’t be surprising there are 19 varieties of the popular beef-broth soup that is pronounced “fuh.” Right—without the c-k.
A ride on the pho train can go in myriad directions. For example, there are 21 com—“rice”—dishes with grilled shrimp, pork, chicken or beef. But before seeing a menu, a diner must navigate past the arresting river-rock wall of the foyer capped with 8-inch faux bamboo. Just past that is a nearly life-size sculpture of a kid playing a flute astride a water buffalo. Along one wall is a large Grandma Moses-meets-the-Mekong painting. Two vibrant, nasty-ass lobsters are mounted above the counter on which the cash register rests. It’s bright, clean and spacious with white doilies on the windows.
Might as well start down the dac biet list with pho. It’s No. 1 on the menu’s hit-parade list. What makes it special is that it contains a little bit of everything that appears in the other pho further down the list: thin slices of rare steak, brisket, rubbery tendon, feathery tripe. There’s an Atlantis of rice noodles submerged within the $6.75 large version, making the extra large something to share among a family approximately the size of the Brady Bunch.
All pho is not created equal. Here the licorice of the star anise shines through, as does a chirp of cinnamon. The same is true of the table salad that’s a central part of most Vietnamese meals. In the dining car of the pho train, the table salad is fairly prosaic—a few jalapeño wheels, two lime wedges, a mound of sprouts, and a sprig of cilantro and one of Thai basil. This could be because of the array of opportunities stationed at each table. Some chili oil or soy, perhaps? A passel of pickled jalapeños? Hoisin? A splash or seven of the sacred sriracha? The table’s napkin dispenser is handy for combating the inevitable sriracha-spawned nose run.
Similar to pho is hu tieu mi tom cua dac biet, except for its richly spiced pork-based broth. The “mi tom cua” refers to the crab claw and shrimp with eyes who share the bowl with an armada of scallions, rice noodles, some thin pork slices and what at first blush seem to be water chestnuts but I learn from the pho train’s matriarch are in fact fish balls. Again, the large size hu tieu is more than enough for one.
Watching the other diners, apparently the proper way to consume pho or the various iterations of hu tieu is through two-fisted eating. From the most elderly Vietnamese patrons to a youngster in a high chair, chop sticks are in one hand and a ladle spoon in the other. Like the Army: left, right, left. For the uninitiated, practice and concentration are critical to avoid spillage.
The house special chow fun is also designed to share. A glorious green frond of bok choy tops a mound of fat noodles laced with sprouts, crosscut scallions, calamari, eyeless shrimp, beef, chicken and barbecue pork that’s a bit dry.
A final word about the bowl-cut, bespectacled matriarch, who spends a fair amount of time near the cash register. She’s friendly and solicitous to a fault with a gifted memory of past likes and dislikes—a key incentive to return.