Despite the 65 degree sunshine here in the middle of January, it's still winter. And since it's winter, that means it's our chance to seek out warm, comforting foods. With all respect to mac 'n' cheese and meatloaf, food doesn't get any more comforting than a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup -- or, for chicken soup taken one step further, a bowl of sweet, ginger-heavy pho ga.
Many San Franciscans swear by the rendition at the beloved Turtle Tower, but on the Peninsula, you're often pointed even further south to San Jose for the "best" pho. From my money, however, it's hard to beat both the Northern-style, beef-based pho bac, and the Southern-style, sweeter, and chicken-based pho ga at South San Francisco's Ben Tre.
For an even more unique experience, seek out Ben Tre's pho ga quay chao ($8.95), where the baked chicken comes on the side separate from the bowl of traditional pho ga. It's a do-it-yourself version of pho ga. You can have the chicken and soup completely removed from each other. You can put a little chicken in the soup. You can put all the chicken in the soup. There is no right or wrong answer. We like to enjoy half the chicken on its own and then half of the chicken in the soup, allowing the bird's sweet marinade to mix with the robust broth for an interesting taste evolution.
As tender as the chicken is and light and slick as the noodles are, the broth of the pho ga really makes the dish sing. Heavy hints of cardamom, clove, and especially ginger mingle with the earthy broth, which is made by boiling an entire chicken, a little sugar, and a lot of fish sauce. It results in soup that hardy needs the Sriracha or hoisin bottles on the side.
The chicken's marinade is much lighter and significantly sweeter than many of its barbequed counterparts. Lemongrass, palm sugar, fish sauce, and five-spice powder are the main ingredients, giving a nice sweet punch and a slick coating without overwhelming the bird's flavor. The secret knockout bites are the julienned carrots and lettuce shards beneath the bird that are coated in the marinade like sticky vegetable toffee.
One last note, lunch time definitely is rush hour. I arrived slightly before noon and the place was tranquil. Within minutes, strangers were sharing tables and hot tea. Nobody minded being together for an experience that's far more than just chicken noodle soup.
219 Grand Ave., South San Francisco; (650) 952-2243, or 219 El Camino Real, Millbrae; (650) 689-5588.