Note: I wrote this last August, and was planning on finishing it with more detailed reviews and discussion, but it doesn't look like it'll happen anytime soon. One restaurant already closed in the time I've had this on my "to do" list...so I'm posting what I have already.... may add more as the mood strikes. /EndNote
Bo Kho, Vietnamese-style beef stew, is my favorite dish to order at Vietnamese restaurants, if they have it, so much so that I rarely order regular Pho. It differs from pho in that it typically has a stronger broth based on the cut of beef, rather than a bone-based stock like pho. It also has much more in the way of seasoning, and usually a caramelization of sugar step in making the soup. However, the recipes seem to vary a lot between establishments.
My preferred rendition has each of these elements: a “thick” broth based on beef with a good amount of connective tissue; strong seasoning containing cinnamon (cassia), star anise, five-spice and “Indian”-style yellow curry powder, and fish sauce; lemongrass and ginger. Tomato and annatto are optional to me. I find most versions around here seem to focus on cinnamon, star anise, annatto, tomato, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass, with tomato, annatto, fish sauce and ginger dominant. I think many places do not use five-spice and curry, relying mainly on star anise and perhaps cassia only. Also, many places leave the broth too thin for me, meaning they are not using enough connective tissue-containing cuts, which shortens cooking time but leaves the broth weak. Or possibly they are doctoring their pho broth, which is wrong since that is a bone-based stock. A cardinal sin to me is to use a rump-type cut, which ends up in the stew as stringy, dried-out leathery chunks of meat. The good cuts for this are “drop flank (nam)”, chuck, shank and stewed tendon.
Bo Kho is the stew itself; most places serve it as either Pho Bo Kho with the rice noodles, or Mi Bo Kho with the Cantonese-style egg noodles. Occasionally you will find Hu tieu (wide fresh rice noodles, or ho fun) or even less frequently wide egg noodles. Sometimes it can be ordered alone, with rice, or with a Vietnamese-style baguette. In noodle form it is usually but not always served with the Pho accompaniments: bean sprouts, herbs, lime and jalapeno.
New Pagolac (Oakland) (Closed)
This was my ideal; I went here 1-3 times a month for years until the owners sold the restaurant to their business partners and the recipe totally changed. That incarnation has also closed, and as of August 2009 a new restaurant seems to be in the works. It had all the elements I note above, thick broth with a heavy contribution from the yellow curry. I was sorely disappointed when the management changed, and I never went back to the successor restaurant.
Kang Nam Pho House (Oakland Telegraph Ave. about 50th)
There were some posts on this restaurant when it first opened, replacing another Korean restaurant that I never went to. When it first opened, it had one of the more common implementations, a pho-like broth but thicker due to the meat-, not bone-base. Call this the “Strong Pho” version. Less of the annatto, tomato and other seasonings. These types of Bo Kho are reasonably good, and many will like these versions as much or more as my ideal. After some months open, I had the Bo Kho and found it had changed to be exactly like the New Pagolac version; sure enough, the chef was the same as at New Pagolac, and the same woman was working the front of house. I was overjoyed. Sadly, several months later, they were out, and they had reverted to a slightly different “Strong Pho” version. A recent visit (July-August 09) showed that they have changed slightly again, to the “Tomato-Annatto medium Pho” version, with the somewhat disconcerting addition of unstewed carrot and green and red bell pepper. Still reasonably tasty, but pretty far from what I really like.
Pho Ga Huong Ca Café (Oakland 7th Ave. Clinton Square)
This version was very close to my ideal, when ordered as “stew only.” Appropriate cut of meat, strong seasoning emphasizing curry and five-spice, and overall good flavor. A bit on the more salty side, but not too much so for me. Others may not like it this salty; it was definitely one of the most salty I’ve had in Oakland. However, when ordered with egg noodles, the broth appeared to have been greatly diluted by the noodle cooking water, which, if standard practice, is appalling. If it was just a problem with the recipe, then ok. However, I will probably just order the stew alone in the future. The specialty of this place is Vietnamese style boiled chicken (similar to Hainan chicken) and that is really quite tasty here. I will definitely return for both.
Thanh Ky Chinese Restaurant (Oakland 12th St. Clinton Square)
This is a Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant that appears to specialize in noodles. They seem to do a brisk business in Trieu-chau (Chiu Chow) style dry noodles, but also have a Bo Kho. This style was somewhat new to me. It tastes different than most, seeming almost like a Cantonese style beef stew noodle, except with tomato and annatto. I suspect no lemongrass. It also was the only place in this roundup with the wide egg noodle. This was good on its own terms, but not really what I was looking for. It was packed on the weekend, and doing decent business on the weekday that I went.
Noodle Trend (Oakland International/14th at about 3rd Ave) (Now closed as of Jan 2010)
VH Noodle House (Richmond Pacific East Mall)
Between this restaurant, Thanh Ky (above) and VH Noodle House, I now consider the “Trieu-chau” style Bo Kho to be a distinct category. After trying a lot of Bo Kho in a sort period of time, I found this to be my ideal style. I ended up going here (Noodle Trend) as much as I could (my SO got tired of Bo Kho and refused to join me after two weeks of it, so I could only go when she was otherwise occupied). Noodle Trend’s was the best I have had, with VH closely following. Unfortunately, shortly after my last bowl there in December, I tried to go again and found them to be closed. Saw recently that a new Vietnamese noodle house has opened in its place. This style is thicker and more strongly flavored than the style exemplified by Pho Ga Huong Ca Café (above). The main differences (I think) are larger amounts of five-spice and curry.
Kim Huong (Oakland Chinatown, 10th at Harrison)
Last time I visited had an “eh” version without much spice, and bell pepper in the soup. No thanks. Some other items were nice, though.
Pho Huynh Hiep (Oakland 12th St. at about 16th)
Pretty good for not my ideal. This restaurant has a parking lot. Annato, anise, cinnamon, but I think cooked with proper meats to get the right body. No curry evident.
Pho Oakland #1 (Oakland 12th st. at about 12th)
Pho Anh Dao (Oakland near Lake Merritt)
Thin broth, lighter on the spices, no curry, mainly tomato and annatto.
Definitely does not have:
Pho Ga 69 (Oakland 12th st. about 15th)
I have a take out menu that lists Bo Kho, and it’s on a wall menu in the restaurant, but crossed out. No longer offered. I had a Bun Bo Hue that I thought a little bland, but this is not my dish, so will not draw any conclusions.
Miss Saigon (Grand Ave.)
No Bho Kho, but decent VN chicken salad, and open late