A bowl of good pho has the power to break you down.
On the right day, its fumes of aromatic steam, chewy rice noodles, juicy slivers of beef, and that grassy basil edge can uplift, satisfy, and deeply satiate an individual’s hunger like few other foods can.
Especially, if that bowl is from PhoKingNgoc, the first street pho stand to pop up in a sidewalk in Los Angeles.
“Moving to L.A. from Sacramento, seeing all the taco stands and being here to see street food become legal, I wanted to test the waters to see if people would also be down to eat pho in the street,” says Ngoc Nguyen as he carefully ladles some of his homemade beef broth into nondisposable pho bowls on a Sunday afternoon. We’re on the northeast corner of Ave 57 and Figueroa, the historic location of L.A.’s first legitimate bowl of beef broth by way of himself and his wife, Cynthia Gong.
“I don’t know anywhere else in California or even the U.S. where this kind of food scene exists, the streets are conducive to it, why not pho?” So Nguyen and Gong did their research on current street food laws in the city, found the perfect corner that wouldn’t disturb other businesses brick and mortar businesses nearby, and decided to do it. They currently offer one thing: brisket and rare beef pho. A dish that he grew up eating at home cooked by his grandmother, but had trouble finding suitable versions to his standard at Vietnamese restaurants in town. Nguyen’s grandfather had a pho stand in Vietnam.
“I would go to various beloved pho restaurants, take home their broths, and leave it overnight in the ‘fridge to see if was really a bone broth or not,” Nguyen informs me, unashamed of his passion for true pho. “Even after a couple of nights, the broth would still be watery instead of gelatinized, it was pretty clear that there wasn’t much actual collagen in the broth.” All the while, Nguyen perfected his own collagen-rich pho broth, going as far as gently simmering beef feet for up to eight hours to extract every last little bit of mouth-filling richness from the animal.
This beef feet-enhanced formula of trial and error is what constitutes the base of the $7.50 bowls that Nguyen and his wife serve. The broth is golden-brown, not murky, but also not clear; a sign a properly (gently) simmered and skimmed bowl of pho broth. Its savoriness is long-lasting, and not just an instant flash of umami, the latter of which suggests the use of bouillon or other shortcut powders in broths. The rice noodles are softened in the broth just long enough that they don’t become a floppy mess, and the slices of tender brisket and rare beef are certainly piled high for a bowl that costs a little more than a cappuccino with oat milk and a tip across the street.
Nguyen categorizes his broth as a more southern-style pho because of all the herbs, spices, and hoisin available at the table. The squeeze bottles mysteriously labeled “Aroma Oil” are Nguyen’s invention, it’s a flavor bomb in a bottle made by amping up the skimmed fat that rises to the top of the broth with pho spices. Excess in the most delicious form.
“The best part of serving pho in the street is that every single time, there’s always someone who walks by and tries it for the first time.” In particular, the Vietnamese owners of the nail shops nearby nail salons.
“When I first started vending here, Helen of Helen’s Nails next door couldn’t believe it. She was so happy, she bought a bowl for all of her staff,” says Nguyen. “The other morning, another man who owns a nail salon two blocks up honked his horn and started speaking to me in Vietnamese in the middle of the street, saying how happy he was, even offering us to set up in front his shop.”
During the day, Nguyen works in health insurance and Gong is in Medical Research. It’s been over a month since they started and for now, PhoKingNgoc is just a fun side hustle that the couple squeezes in after a long workweek. If it goes well, they’ll keep it going as a street operation and pull the required permits to comply when those city permits become available in 2020. They also eventually want to promote and manufacture Nguyen’s other genius invention: a pho kit that comes with all the fixings and his magical frozen beef broth that they also sell at his stand.
But for now, they’re happy feeding the residents of Highland Park and people who are lucky enough to walk or drive by on Figueroa Street and get a whiff of the spiced, beefy steam.
As I leave, deeply satisfied, uplifted, and satiated. Both Nguyen and Gong enjoy a bowl of their hard work.
“We eat pho for Christmas, after church, or for any celebration. I even made my own pho and served it at my wedding—pho is our staple,” says Nguyen.
PhoKingNgoc typically sets up on Friday nights and Sunday mornings on the corner of Figueroa Street and Ave 57. For exact hours and schedule updates, follow them on Instagram.