San Gabriel’s Nha Trang ain’t your typical hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese soup joint

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Oh please! Forget the warm coat, gloves, and a scarf. 
I eat Pho to beat the cold weather in Los Angeles.

Nothing beats cold weather than a hot bowl of soup. In my case, it’s the Vietnamese soup called Pho (pronounced fa) that always keeps me warm. When I used to live in Orange County, California I always frequented the Vietnamese community of Little Saigon where I was thrown into learning about the Vietnamese culture just by eating their many delicacies. Pho, which I dub “the best tasting soup in the world”, became an instant favorite of mine, because of its clean and aromatic tastes.  My Vietnamese friends often told me that it’s the technique for making the broth that is never the same yet gives it that bright flavor. Also, it’s the many different combinations of spices that give it the distinct aromatic flavor. Typical spices found in Pho are cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, Chinese five spice, cloves, coriander, and ginger. In addition, it requires many hours to stew the bones, either chicken or beef and maybe a pig or perhaps a cow knuckle or two, to get the rich tasting broth.  
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Since I moved away from the OC, my digs for Asian cuisine is now the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles county, which is the home of many Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese expats. In my life time, I’ve slurped my way through many different bowls of Pho throughout the Southern California area, but I have never had a bowl of Pho that I could say that I absolutely love until I dined at San Gabriel’s Nha Trang
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Last week was my first time dining at Nha Trang. It was quite the humbling dining experience, because of the size of the restaurant. I mean my friends and I literally sat elbow to elbow at the only biggest table in the restaurant; a 6-seater table. I compared the comfort level of this table to comforts of sitting inside a mid 1970s Ford Station Wagon with the full front seats and I’m not talkin’ bucket seats. (I wanted to say Cadillac Escalade, but the size of an Escalade is quite spacious and comfortable in comparison to the seating arrangements of 6 adults inside an old model Ford Station Wagon. Yup, been there, done that.) Oh, it was hilarious!  My right elbow practically hugged the wall as I tried to slurp the soup with my left hand and maneuver the chop sticks with my right hand to chomp on the tender slices of meat and vermicelli noodles. But hey? You do what you have to do to eat good food, right? 
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After my first visit at Nha Trang, I found that the rules are pretty simple when you eat there:
1. Bring cash, because it’s a Cash Only establishment. Dishes are $6. Smoothies are $2.50. Vietnamese coffee, tea, and soda are $2. 
2. Take five friends with you to share the entire menu of six dishes. That’s right! There are only six dishes on the menu. 
3. Wait a long time for a free table, because don’t take reservations. 
4. Plan to be seated elbow to elbow with your dinner party. Believe it or not, the cramped dining room seats about 16 people. So, don’t bother to dine at Nha Trang if you don’t like to be seated too close to people who are not your significant other. The same goes if you’re claustrophobic. Perhaps taking the food to-go is better for you to avoid being packed like sardines.    
5.  Get there early, because Nha Trang is known for running out of soup. Let me repeat myself, they run out of soup! I don’t know of any other Vietnamese restaurant that runs out of soup. Do you? Early at Nha Trang is like 9:00AM when they officially open. If you’re lucky or sneaky like me, you can get a table as early as 8:30AM. 
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The best kept dining secret at Nha Trang is that you can order a regular size bowl of Pho or a large size bowl. They only price the regular bowl on their menu, but you can get the large bowl if you ask for it. I tell ya, the regular bowl is more than satisfying if you are super hungry. 
On my second visit to Nha Trang, the crazy-ass guy behind me ordered a large bowl of Pho Ga (Chicken Soup). He loved the Pho Ga so much that he slurped louder than me and all of the other patrons in the restaurant. This Dude would be the winner if they had a soup slurping contest.
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On my return visit to Nha Trang, I ordered my favorites; #1 Bun Bo Hue, a Beef Noodle soup and #6 Bun Bo Xao, a cold marinated beef and vermicelli dish. 
Nha Trang’s Bun Bo Hue is a heavenly clear beef broth soup. Bathed in the broth are thick rice noodles, tender slices of beef brisket, a chunk or two of pork knuckle to gnaw on, and some coagulated pork blood blocks that give you the extra iron that you didn’t think that you needed. My palate found Star Anise, and Chinese Five Spice infused in the beef broth, which are the same spices used in the Vietnamese Beef Stew (Bo Kho). This soupis phobulous! Get it?  
Bun Bo Xao isa cold marinated beef and vermicelli dish noodle dish without the soup. Beware, this dish is a gargantuan portioned dish. What makes this dish spectacular are the marinated stir fried beef and the crushed peanuts adds a little depth to it. Break the rice crackers and drizzle the sweet-spicy sauce and mix thoroughly. This dish will not disappoint your appetite.  
So, I’ll continue to wear my shorts and t-shirts, and slip on the flip flops during the cold winter months in LA.  Pho at Nha Trang is the best I’ve tasted and it’s now my excuse to go there to to beat the cold. Don’t phoget about it. Order the Pho! (OMG, why am I being so stupidly cheesey?)


Update June 25, 2012:
Nha Trang has since move to a slightly bigger location at 742 E. Garvey Avenue, Monterey Park, CA 91755.  There are more tables and chairs, lines are still long, and the menu items have reduced. The good news is that they still serve the dishes that I have tasted and wrote about. 
 

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