Pho King is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints that are no frills with homestyle dishes. It’s the kind of place you want to make your neighborhood eatery but so many people talk about it it’s become one of those worst kept secrets in town.
This tiny Vietnamese noodle shop is at the start of International Boulevard in Oakland close to Lake Merritt. I heard about it when I saw someone post its bun rieu on Instagram. I’ve recently been obsessing about bun rieu — the Vietnamese soup noodle dish with a tomato-based broth — so I decided to give it a try.
Friends told me the restaurant is packed for lunch but not too crowded at night. Both times I visited I went for an early dinner and it did get packed with a mixed crowd later on. The utilitarian dining space has quick service, although sometimes in their rush they might not get your orders right.
The bun rieu (I got the large for $7.15) came out with an interesting assortment of ingredients in the soup, most notably soft-boiled quail eggs. (I’d never seen this in other bun rieu I’ve had in town.) Overall, there was a lot of flavor in the tomato broth and a delicate touch to other ingredients like the crab meatballs. You could sense that a lot of time and effort was put into creating the soup and preparing the ingredients.
While the menu also includes rice plates and vermicelli bowls (also called “bun”), I mostly focused on the soup noodles.
The dish most people talk about online is the bun bo hue ($7.55 for a large), another soup noodle dish from the Central Vietnam city of Hue. (Ironically, not too many people talk about the straight-forward pho soup noodles even though this is Pho King.) Bun bo hue is typically spicy, and there’s a nice kick to Pho King’s version. Again, the broth was flavorful and all the ingredients seem to have an authentic touch to it, like one you’d imagine Vietnamese moms make at home.
In fact, the beef in my bun bo hue had a bit of gristle, looking like the inexpensive cuts that one would cook for hours to get as much flavor from it.
I had come with a friend who doesn’t like to eat a lot of beef-based dishes, so he ordered the My Quang Ga, a chicken dish using the Chinese flat noodles called ho fun. My friend thought the dish would be a stir-fry noodle dish, but it actually came in soup, something our waitress didn’t really explain. (He also felt the chicken pieces were a lot of bone and not that much meat.)
Also, our appetizer of chao tom cuon or shrimp on sugar cane stick turned into imperial rolls ($8.95). I guess our waitress thought it would be easier for people not familiar with shrimp on a sugar cane stick to eat the roll version, where the shrimp cake is removed from the sugar cane stick and made into imperial rolls with vermicelli and lettuce ($8.95).
The last bite
Pho King has a real home-cooked feel to their dishes, and in a good way where it feels like a lot of time and effort was placed into every ingredient that goes into a bowl or plate. The place is tiny and parking is tricky in that area, but it delivers on authenticity and flavor.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Pho King, 638 International Blvd. (between 6th and 7th Streets), Oakland. PH: 510.444.0448. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily (except Tuesday), closing early at 6 p.m. on Sunday. No reservations, cash only.
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