Waking up to a waft of savory asian-inspired aroma filling the air, instantly distinguishable from Grandma’s other dishes, my five-year-old self knows the meal: pho. Pho is defined as a type of Vietnamese soup, typically made from beef stock and spices to which noodles and thinly sliced beef or chicken are added. Like most foods, it is influenced by its maker and can vary in flavor and quality. Fueled by our love for this food, we decided to tour central Oahu in search of our top three places to get pho.
Our ranking is based on the following criteria: presentation, taste and price. We ordered the same two dishes in each restaurant; a regular sized pho and a plate of crispy spring rolls. These two dishes can be found at almost any Vietnamese restaurant and happened to be our favorites. From these two orders, we used a rubric to test the quality of the dishes.
Our first stop was closest to home — Mililani Mauka’s Saito & Pho III. This restaurant opened fairly recently and has quickly received fairly good ratings on restaurant review sites like Yelp. Asian paintings and pictures of featured dishes adorned the walls and the tables were neatly lined with an array of sauces. Contrary to what we expected, the menu had a good selection of pho types and side dishes. We ordered our crispy spring rolls and pho and waited about 15 minutes until our dishes were delivered to our table. As for price, this location was more expensive than we predicted: regular size pho was $12.50 and the spring rolls were $8.50. Our plate of six small spring rolls was served with a measly pile of vegetables: rough cut lettuce, beat sprouts, basil, pickled carrots and pickled cucumber. As veggie lovers, the quality of vegetables was a really important factor in how we rated the restaurants and unfortunately for Saito and Pho the vegetables were a bit dry and low quality. The spring rolls themselves were merely okay; they lacked depth in flavor and the crispness of the shell that is expected of the staple dish. The pho, however, was very satisfying. The brisket pieces were very thick and the broth had a trim of sweetness to it that was unique to this restaurant. For the price, the quality of the experience was low— dry vegetables, soggy spring rolls, and mediocre service. Overall, we gave Saito and Pho III a rating of “good” (2/4 stars).
We next ventured to Wahiawa, the next town over, to eat at Pho King located right off of California Avenue. This spot is considered a classic and staple for those coming from Schofield Barracks for lunch. Upon entering the restaurant, we were welcomed by close seats and baby blue walls that created a homier atmosphere than the previous location . We ordered a regular sized meatball and brisket pho for $10.25 and spring rolls for $8.50. A plate of four spring rolls cost $8.50, the same price as Saito & Pho III. Although Pho King’s spring rolls were more expensive, they were higher in quality and had more depth. The crisp rolls came with a variety of veggies, such as pickled carrots, lettuce and cucumbers, which were all vibrant and high quality. However, for the large amount of veggies, we thought there could be more or thicker spring rolls. As for the pho: Pho King showcased broth that was less sweet, which we preferred. The noodles were just the right texture, meaning they had been soaking for an adequate amount of time. Pho King was not shy about serving generous portions both in noodles and veggies, making the cost value higher than that of Saito & Pho III. All in all, we were very satisfied with our experience and left with full bellies, earning the restaurant a rating of “excellent” (3/4).
With a longer drive to Pearl City, we arrived at Pho My Lien, a quaint restaurant located on the upper lot of Pearl City shopping center. The restaurant has a very homely feel, with green cushion seats and an open floor plan fitted to seat large parties and families. Pho My Lien is usually seen with a full house during dinnertime, full of large families enjoying their meals. The menu is also very diverse, with dishes ranging from refreshing papaya salad to savory soups. The regular size pho was $10.25, setting the price value very high as the portions were very generous for the price. The pho broth was perfectly balanced; a slight trace of sweetness complimented with a savory depth that made for a delicious spoonful. The noodles and toppings were also very high quality. The clean cuts of quality beef brisket were sliced very thinly, which complimented the delicate savoriness of the broth. The pho was filling but never in an overbearing or heavy way. All of the dishes we ordered were served in china bowls and platters and the presentation was neat and very appetizing. Our second dish, the crispy spring rolls, matched the excellence of the pho. They were beautifully crispy and had a filling that was a perfect balance of vegetables and meat. After many satisfying bites and careful discussion, we concluded that Pho My Lien earned a rating of “superior” (4/4).
Given the amount of pho we ate and enjoyed, the experience was enlightening as Hawai‘i’s diversity was depicted in every dish. Whether it be a cold day or if you’re simply looking for a filling meal, pho is always a good idea as it is both healthy and delicious. After careful thought and consideration, it is determined that Pho My Lien was the best overall experience.