I'm not proud of it, but I will admit that I find it difficult to order anything other than a big, bubbly bowl of pho when I walk into a Vietnamese restaurant. In terms of comfort food, pho has just about everything you could want: flavorful, rich broth, hearty chunks of meat and enough vermicelli noodles to comprise a pasta dish, but in soup form. Truthfully, there are few times I'm happier than when I'm dolloping chili garlic sauce and Hoisin sauce into my bowl, squeezing in lime and adding bits of herbs and chiles into the mix. That moment is gold.
So, when I first came to Com Tam Thuan Kieu, the modest little Vietnamese joint attached to the Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket on Orange Grove Road and La Cholla Boulevard, I (not surprisingly) ordered pho. With a competitive price point to other spots in town ($6.50 for a small and $7.50 for a large) and a richer broth than some other local pho places (without heaviness), the pho at Thuan Kieu is nothing to sneer at (although I still prefer Pho #1). But, I did feel a little disappointed in myself for not venturing to other dishes on the 12-page menu.
If you can get past the allure of pho, you'll find that Thuan Kieu has a lot more to offer in terms of Vietnamese specialties. Starting off, you'll want to try out interesting soda options like plum and preserved lime, which opt for a briney and sometimes savory flavor palette, rather than the cloyingly sweet sodas we're all accustomed to.
In terms of eats, there's no better place to start than the restaurant's namesake: com tam ($8.99). The broken rice dish is served atop a bed of split rice grains, which give the dish its name. From there, you have your choice of an array of unique additions to the rice including shredded pork skin, crisped tofu, a bright orange frittata-like side, sausages and more. No matter which combination you choose, make sure it includes the pork chop, as it does on the com tam bi cha suron nuong tau hu ky. If you do, you'll discover the Vietnamese answer to Korean kalbi—although the Vietnamese take is a little more delicate with spicing in its marinade.
For those looking to slowly wean themselves off of the pho crutch, the bun (rice vermicelli) dishes offer what I like to think of as the salad to pho's soup. Tear up herbs and lettuce and top them on noodles and, in the case of the bun cha Ha Noi ($8.99), bits of marinated pork topped with picked carrot and daikon. From there, like pho, you can spice it up with any of the provided condiments, which includes Sriracha, chili garlic paste, chili oil, fish sauce, soy sauce, Hoisin and more, though you'll want to be sure not to shy away from the fish sauce in this instance.
Soup fans specifically will become repeat visitors to Thuan Kieu because the restaurant offers several different options apart from pho, including chunky udon noodles in an unctuous pork broth with a pork hock (banh canh thit gio; $7.99) and a pork-based pho-like soup served with your choice of rice or egg noodles (hu tieu hoac mi; $7.99-$8.50).
The chao ($7.99) or rice porridge, though, is a fast favorite for anyone who's looking for something a little soothing. Rice starch thickened broth provides the base for the broken rice studded soup topped with scallion, garlic, ginger, fried onion and your choice of meat, which includes options like pork blood, pork liver and heart or, the more American-friendly, chicken, beef or pork. In terms of comfort food, chao is the exact sort of thing you'd want to order to go on a sick day—especially with those chunks of ginger to help gently bring you back to life.
You'll also find that one of the most charming aspects of Thuan Kieu is the service. The small restaurant is staffed almost exclusively by polite, older Vietnamese men who are quick getting orders in and bringing food out. Like the restaurant itself, you won't find anything flashy here—just what it needs to be and nothing more. If you're dining in, be aware that they won't drop checks at tables, so rather than waiting around and getting grumpy that your check isn't there, simply walk to the counter when you're ready and settle up. Easy.
Really, though, all of those dishes amount to just a few of the many non-pho options at Thuan Kieu. Visually stunning spring rolls, red rice dishes, stir fried noodles, vermicelli patties and more will keep you returning to the restaurant to explore Vietnamese cuisine. You can do it and the foray away from pho is well worth it.