Dining on a budget: Pho Minh in South El Monte

By Evelyn Barge, Staff Writer

The word’s trickled out – twice now – on a relative newcomer to Garvey Avenue’s pho-cluttered landscape.

The spotlight first fell on Pho Minh Vietnamese restaurant in December, when famed L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold heaped piles of praise on the eatery for outshining all its look-alike neighbors.

Then, in a front-page news story on May 1, the L.A. Times trained its eye on Pho Minh, where customers are quick to rave about the classic noodle soup but slow to make their way through the front door.

The consensus among interested parties? More people should be eating here. And now you can add me to that list.

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My small-bowl order of pho dac biet (No. 2 on the menu, $4.75) was without doubt the best I’ve ever noisily slurped in a San Gabriel Valley strip mall, and there have been plenty of those occasions, though last week marked my first at Pho Minh.

I’ve been a longtime fan of San Gabriel’s much-talked- about and always-packed Golden Deli, where I can order a feast for two for under $20, and the drive itself from Pasadena through San Marino’s upscale, winding roads is part of the joy.

But at Pho Minh the joy is concentrated – simply and richly – into what’s most important: the food.

Sailing down Garvey during the lunch hour, it’s easy to get distracted. With the concentration of Vietnamese signs increasing on the drive west, so comes the onslaught of pho stops. Without a destination in mind, each seems indistinguishable from the next.

“Is that one it?” “Wait, maybe this one?” “How about we just stop there; They’re all the same, right?”

A word to the wise: Don’t stray from the hunt. Buried in the back corner of International Plaza is your target – one that’s worth the series of risky U-turn maneuvers required to get there.

Here, the broth is mellow and exquisite; the jumble of meats, hearty and fresh. Pho zen is achieved with a scattering of both the tabletop fish and chili oil.

What’s more, this brothy concoction didn’t leave me in sodium-induced shock nor with an MSG hangover, both of which I’ve come to warily expect from hole-in-the-wall joints in the Valley. Leaving Pho Minh, I felt lightly energized with a warm, full feeling in my belly.

And did I mention free iced tea, tinged with jasmine no less? That’s no rotating special, either; It’s printed on the menu. One day after the L.A. Times article landed on front lawns and newsstands across the city, Pho Minh was packed, every seat in the house filled. The staff and servers were overwhelmed by the traffic, literally running to clear off one table to the next.

For me, that translated into an extra-long lunch hour with lots of waiting involved. It was my only disappointment.

But busy is not the standard fare. Though certainly a long-distance destination for foodies around L.A. and Orange counties, it seems Pho Minh isn’t drawing the necessary support from locals, the ones with the power to sustain its day-to-day business.

The dearth of diners probably has less to do with the recession (who would refuse a full meal for $5-$6 in this economic climate?), and more with the location and its dissonant chorus of equally-priced competition.

Save yourself the weeding process, and write this down:

Pho Minh is located at 9646 E. Garvey Ave., Unit 108, in South El Monte. For more information, call (626) 448-8807.

Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

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