By Nancy Powell
Some will cite that the hallmark of a good Vietnamese pho restaurant is grunge; the dirtier the restaurant, the more authentic tasting its food. And so Pho Anam—tastefully decorated, intimate and warm and courteous and attentive customer service in a clean, well-lit place and far from the capital of Vietnamese cuisine—seemed to go against the grain of common knowledge. The cleanliness is just icing on the cake, and Pho Anam succeeds where others would fail in “fluff,” bringing a healthy dose of flavor and authenticity in quiet and more subtle ways.
Pho Anam may have just opened in December of 2011, but owner Steve has obviously cut his teeth on more sophisticated venues. Dishes have an understated artistry, where a steaming bowl of pho arrives at the not as a heap of noodles, herbs and meat, but in delicately arranged layers with the bewitching aroma of broth tickling the nose. And on the hot and balmy late evening that I slip into Pho Anam, crowds both Vietnamese and non-Asian continue to trickle in. The place never stays empty, which is a good indicator of Pho Anam’s legitimacy.
My waitress Tina starts me off fresh young coconut juice served in a shaven and hulled coconut container. Unadulterated coconut water doesn’t have the most pleasing flavor at first, but Tina’s advice to balance out the sodium of the pho with the great equalizer of electrolytes is spot on.
I’ve decided to test Pho Anam’s nem nuong, or pork spring rolls. Brodard in Orange County has set the unachievable high standard in nem nuong, and while Steve’s rolls don’t match exactly match in quality and texture, they don’t embarrass either. I appreciate the minty, earthy essence that some might object to. I also like that he adds the “crunch” factor, a crisped strip of wonton skin the roll some additional texture.
The calamari rings are thick, well-seasoned rings and a meatier contrast to the pork rolls. The size of the rings might bemoan a certain rubberiness, but the rings are surprisingly al dente tender and flavorful even without the orange-infused condiment provided.
Next up are the bowls of pho—rare steak and well done brisket and the garlicky noodles with shrimp, chicken and char siu, or barbecued pork. The beef is quality, the noodles toothsome in the first bowl, but the browned bits of garlic and scallions make the second pho a clear winner. The soups border on addictive; both are clear are refreshing, devoid of the greasy heaviness that typifies “real” pho. Yet Steve’s version is no less real; his pho has a clean, inviting essence that defies expectations, and it is a dish that should appeal beyond the Asian palate.
My final dish of the evening is a house specialty and a genuine beauty—seared and cubed filet mignon with rice and mixed greens. I like that Steve bothers to season the greens with enough white pepper to give the otherwise sweet dressing a pop. The cubes of beef are juicy, savory, and fork-tender with a perceptible pneumatic quality to them. I’m not a red meat aficionado when it comes to Asian food, but Steve’s filet mignon intrigues me enough for thoughtful reconsideration.
Despite its distance from Little Saigon, Pho Anam deserves equal respect and appreciation. Perhaps Steve and his team can begin what could be the next coming of Vietnamese food in the Empire, and I’d be totally down for it.
Pho Anam, 440 N. McKinley Ave., #102, Corona, (951) 735-2629. Sun-Sat, 10:30AM-9PM. V, MC.