While I live in Oakland, I rarely make my way to the city’s International District – an ethnic neighborhood along International Boulevard, lined with taco trucks and mom-and-pop restaurants — because it’s not so convenient on public transit. But the area supposedly offers some of the best pho (Vietnamese soup noodles) in the area.
I got the chance to try one of its more popular pho destinations, Pho Ao Sen, recently after going to an Oakland A’s game with my friend Virginia. Since she drove, we stopped by for an early pho dinner; the neighborhood is not too far from the Coliseum.
Pho Ao Sen has actually been around for years in a tiny, dive-like spot on International Boulevard. But it moved earlier this year to a larger location on East 12th Street in the former spot of the dim sum tea house King of King. Its web site makes it out to be a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant (they also have a location in Mesa, Ariz.), and that does come through in the interiors with calming green-and-gold hues and paintings of lily pads.
The food, however, appears to be the typical Vietnamese fare of pho, bun vermicelli noodle bowls, spring rolls, and rice dishes. I ended up getting the bun bo hue ($7.95), which is a type of pho from the central region of Vietnam in the town of Hue. The dish is known for its red hue because of its spiciness.
I’ve had a few good bun bo hue around town, but I have to say this is the spiciest I’ve tried. The bowl of noodles and toppings is a bit deceiving when it arrives, because it didn’t have an obvious red hue to indicate the spiciness. But one bite and I was inundated by the spice, often making me choke when I unconsciously slurp the noodles and get a big whiff of the spice.
Despite the tears, I did enjoy the bowl of noodles even though I wasn’t a fan of the thick round rice noodles used at Pho Ao Sen. (I prefer the more flat and somewhat clear pho style noodles, although I realize that’s probably more of a Southern Vietnamese tradition.) The toppings include typical beef shank slices and poached pork, and the maroon-colored blood cubes.
I don’t generally eat the blood cubes (it’s like blood sausages but have the texture of liver) but Pho Ao Sen’s version at least had a creamier texture than others I’ve tried. Still, I only tried the one cube and pushed the others aside.
My bun bo hue was so spicy that it was like my Mount Everest to see if I can finish eating it, but I did.
Virginia had the tamer Pho Tai Chin ($6.75), which she slurped up heartily as I struggled with my bun bo hue.
Service leaves a lot to be desired. Our waiter was especially hostile, not even wanting to look directly at me but instead just staring off into nowhere while taking our orders. The other wait help who busily kept cleaning the tables to keep up with the churn weren’t necessarily very helpful either.
While the bowls of noodles were good, I wouldn’t say it’s the best in the area. They use quality ingredients, but not everything is perfect. For example, a Thai iced tea I ordered tasted thin and slightly bland. Even though Pho Ao Sen draws a regular crowd, I don’t know if it’s a place I would come to again and again.
Rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
Pho Ao Sen, 1139 E. 12th St., Oakland. PH: 510.835.5588. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. No reservations, cash only. phoaosen.com