Why is the Pho Bo different in Vietnam?
I guess it really has to do with the quality of the beef. I didn't see a whole lot of refrigerators in Vietnam (much less freezers). They sell cut meat in open street markets with no refrigeration.
There are two key differences in the beef preparation for all of the Pho Tai I had in Vietnam:
1) The Pho beef in Vietnam was sliced much thicker (on the order of 4 to 5 times thicker) than the paper-thin slices you typically get here. There was more beef and less noodles in the broth in Vietnam.
2) The Pho beef in Vietnam was fresh and rare, not frozen at all. It folds nicely in soft juicy pink drapes and doesn't look at all like the brown freeze-dried sheets you get here. The cows in Vietnam are lean and not pumped full of hormones and fatteners. The beef is good there.
I would say the other differences in Vietnam are perhaps aesthetic:
1) The limes are slightly different. Some smaller local variety more akin to key limes.
2) The side chilies were never green jalapenos but were always red or orange, sometimes jalapeno-size slices, sometimes serrano-size slices, sometimes both. I don't know the variety. (This may not affect the flavor too much, but the color contrast is significant and pleasing).
3) The side herbs always included what restaurateur Mai Pham calls "saw-toothed herb", a long slender green leaf with a serrated edge.
4) Instead of the deeper red Sriracha which is ubiquitous here in Cali, the side hot-sauce everywhere I went in Vietnam is bright orange and has more of a syrupy consistency. It wasn't particularly memorable and seemed like it wasn't entirely natural.
5) The noodles were always fresh and never dried/rehydrated like they are most places here.
6) I imagine the native spices, like the coffee, are somewhat different. We brought some local sea salt and "blue pepper" back from Nha Trang to mix with lime. It's definitely the taste of Vietnam, however subtle. Maybe the star anise, the cloves and other mystic flavorings have that Vietnamese "je ne sais quois".
7) The water and soil and microbes are different in Vietnam.
8) The bowls are generally smaller and it is OK to order a second one if the first didn't fill you up. Since they are less than a buck each, it's easy to do!
But back to my quest for REAL AUTHENTIC Pho in California...
I had Pho Tai today at Thang Long on Brookhurst in Westminster (south of Bolsa, behind the KFC) and it was right on the money in every respect except the beef slices (and the red chilies).
The taste of the Pho Bo at Thang Long is comparable to anything I had in Vietnam. The beef, while thin and probably frozen before slicing, is at least juicy and pink and tastes pretty good. The broth is the BOMB at Thang Long. The noodles are undeniably fresh. They put saw-toothed leaves on the herb plate. It's a pretty damn good bowl of Pho Bo and I'd be hard pressed to name a better place for for Pho Bo in So. Cal. right now.
Maybe Thang Long is as good as it gets in So. Cal.
I'm going to San Jose next month so I'll look there too.
I was just hoping that somewhere in Cali some Pho purist from Vietnam cuts the beef thick, rare and juicy like they do in Saigon.