Phó Ca Dao is a ‘pho-nominal’ experience

by Caitlin Johnson

When considering Vietnamese food in San Diego, East County is probably the last area that comes to mind. Those of us who call the area home must typically venture out into the rest of civilization and are often at a disadvantage when it comes to great local restaurants. Fortunately, there is an oasis for pho lovers among the paved desert known as Santee.

Caitlin Johnson, Staff Writer
Caitlin Johnson, Staff Writer

Last May marked the grand opening of a third Phó Ca Dao, conveniently located between Highway 125 and Intersection-8 on Mission Gorge Road. Taking the place of two previously failed restaurants, the casual atmosphere and quick service of the new Vietnamese addition already shows great promise for success. Since its opening, my food partner-in-crime and I have frequented this location while on a quest for a good bowl of pho and, so far, we’ve always found what we’re looking for.

A subtle elegance greets you upon entering the cozy dining area. The décor blends traditional taste with a somewhat-modern flare, creating a comfortable environment that invites you to stay. A majority of the times I have gone in for either lunch or dinner, the restaurant was appropriately busy, but there was never a long wait to be seated. For those short on time, Phó Ca Dao also offers takeout options complete with all of the fixings of a dine-in meal.

Once seated, I always begin the process of salivating in anticipation of the meal to come. Fortunately, it never takes long to order, despite the many tantalizing choices gracing the menu’s pages. Pho is usually my go-to choice, but sometimes I like to be adventurous and order from the entree section. Either way the noodle boils, I am never disappointed.

If you’re in the mood for an appetizer, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t suggest the fresh spring rolls. A healthier cousin to the egg roll, these tasty bites had crisp ingredients wrapped tightly in a neat, rice-paper package. Depending on your tastes, the spring rolls come in a variety of meats including pork, beef and shrimp. Each dish is complete with a delectable fish sauce for dipping. Thanks to the generous portion sizes, the spring rolls are a perfect dish to split between two people.

Because the service is so quick, I always seem to be shoving my food into my mouth by the time the waiter arrives with our main course. If you’ve never experienced pho before, the point is to customize your dish with the different ingredients given on the side. Sprigs of fresh basil, sliced jalapeños, bean sprouts and lime are offered to personalize your fabulous entrée.

Caitlin Johnson, Staff Writer
Caitlin Johnson, Staff Writer

The broth base is typically the same for each dish, but Phó Ca Dao offers a wide variety of meats to select from. Sliced rare steak, tripe and brisket are among the most popular. Vegetarians have the option of fried or regular tofu, and a side dish of cooked vegetables is available upon request (my personal favorite). Pho wouldn’t be complete without hoisin sauce or Sriracha, both of which add a nice depth of flavor.

One of the best aspects of this restaurant is the friendly service we continuously receive when we go. There is always someone to greet us as soon as we walk in, and while their English may not always be perfect, the food is always authentic. Servers are always very attentive to guests’ specific needs or requests. The service is fantastic, whether you decide to dine in or take your meal to go. The nature of the service industry makes courtesy and customer satisfaction a major requirement for success, and it’s clear Phó Ca Dao employees take great pride in this area.

With great food, service and an inviting price point (two can easily enjoy a great meal for around $20, including appetizers), there is no better place for satisfying a Vietnamese craving in San Diego’s eeastern region. The next time you find yourself in need of a food haven, skip the drive-thru and head to Phó Ca Dao on Mission Gorge Road.