I have always associated the best Vietnamese restaurants with a certain vibe: usually located in a strip mall of some sort (a la Orange County’s Little Saigon) and run by a family who does everything—the cooking, serving and cleaning. Each great Vietnamese meal also leaves my clothes and hair smelling of eau de pho for the next eight hours or so.
Admittedly, I was skeptical when I saw that 123Pho had opened downtown (210 E. Third St., Unit E) amid gastropub central, sporting a contemporary look befitting the neighborhood, with thoughtful seating arrangements—including a bar that faces a window giving you a clear view into the kitchen.
Owner Thanh Ninh, however, is a restaurant industry veteran on the corporate side, while his family has provided him with the culinary chops to bring Vietnamese staples to this unexpected location. Ninh’s aunt owns three popular Vietnamese restaurants in Little Saigon, and weighed in when he began honing his own recipes.
“I’ve always had a desire to open up my own restaurant,” Ninh said. “That stemmed from my aunt’s first restaurant, Quan Hy.”
He helped her open the restaurant while he remained in the corporate world. Two years ago, he said, he was ready to pursue his dream. “I went and spent some time with my aunt, learning the kitchen operations,” he explained. “I started making my family’s recipes, including my parent’s pho recipe. I tweaked it and played with it until it was something we all liked.”
The result: a hip downtown eatery with a simple but well executed menu of Vietnamese flavors. “I wanted to introduce people to Vietnamese food My first visit was for takeout; I tried the garlic noodles with shrimp, and was pleasantly surprised (regardless of how others in my vicinity may have felt about it) by the strong garlic flavor that lingered long after dinner.
Ninh aims to please both takeout and dine-in guests, though, which comes through in the restaurant’s layout and small but inviting bar serving wine and draft beer. Pho, of course, is on the menu, presented as a “build-your-own” experience. Diners choose their noodles (wide or thin), protein (fried tofu and mushrooms are available as a vegetarian option), and broth type (beef, chicken or vegetarian). I appreciate the wide noodle offering, and even the vegetarian broth is full of flavor. The soup’s also served in a generous bowl accompanied by the customary bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime, hoisin sauce and sriracha.
The menu also includes a wok/grill category, essentially assorted proteins on your choice of noodles or rice. Appetizers include egg rolls, spring rolls and bao, the last of which come with three fluffy buns overstuffed with lemongrass chicken or pork, or garlic butter shrimp, plus daikon and carrot strips, cilantro and fresh jalapeno slices. They’re almost a meal in themselves.
My skepticism is no more. While it may not completely invoke the mom-and-pop vibe I’m familiar with, 123 Pho’s flavors are rooted in Little Saigon, thoughtfully presented for the downtown Long Beach crowd.