"It's got a little fat to it. Not all people might like that, but that's what makes it really good," says Nong Lá co-owner Elaine Phuong.
The new off-menu pho at L.A.'s Nong Lá restaurants is beefy bliss, loaded with fallen-off-the-bone rib meat and lots of tendon. It's meaty, tender, fatty, sinewy and gelatinous, a reminder that the deep cuts can be the ones that groove the most if you give them the proper time and attention.
"There's someone here at 3:30 or 4 a.m. every morning," says co-owner Elaine Phuong, who operates Nong Lá with her brother, Victor. "The pho doesn't get finished until we open at 11:30 a.m."
During those eight hours, bone-in ribs are cooked slowly to make pho broth.
But until March, the chefs at Nong Lá (which opened on Sawtelle Boulevard in 2012 and in District La Brea in 2015) were removing the ribs from the broth before they served their pho to customers.
The staff would take the meat home and use it to make tacos or let their pets eat the marrow.
"We all know it's good; you smell how good it is," Phuong says. "But we're so immune to it. Even the dogs of our staff are sick of it."
But for those who don't share this fatigue, the off-menu pho is a revelation. Especially in West L.A. and Mid-City, where serious Vietnamese food is in short supply.
"The ribs make that soup really beefy and rich," Phuong says. "It's got a little fat to it. Not all people might like that, but that's what makes it really good."
All of Phuong's MSG-free pho is based on her mom Khanh Phan's recipe. What started as home cooking became something that Victor, who previously worked as a chemist, helped scale for a business where selling 100 bowls of soup in a day has become the norm.
"It feels like Mom's cooking," says Phuong, who was born in Vietnam and grew up in L.A.'s San Gabriel Valley. "It tastes the same. It's the same quality fish sauce, the same type of meat that we'd use if we were cooking at home."
So far, customers have embraced Nong Lá's new pho and offered Phuong some useful feedback. Guests have raved about how tender the meat is and asked for more meat. ("That's a good thing," Phuong says.) Some have requested bones because they want to scoop out the marrow. This pho, with a little tweaking, might become a regular menu item.
But now that the rib meat is a hit, Phuong's considering all options, including using it in bánh mìs. Here's a free idea for her: Vietnamese French dips (something that Bryant Ng briefly served at L.A.'s beloved Cassia when the restaurant offered lunch). She's obviously got some broth she can use.
In the meantime, Nong Lá's off-menu pho is available in limited quantities, about 10 to 15 bowls a day, at its Sawtelle and La Brea locations.