And now, some words from my minion:
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While Mary toured the land of key lime pie and Cuban sandwiches, I attended a complimentary lunch invitation from the Spotted Cow Viet Kitchen in her stead. The unique name piqued my curiosity and I immediately thought of British spy Emma Peel saying “How now brown cow?” in The Avengers. Though this outing would be more Bourdain than Bond, I knew that I had to see what this place was all about. With my wife Allison in tow, we braved the San Diego heat wave to seek out some savory soups.
Tucked into a corner of the relatively new Zion Market food court, the Spotted Cow Viet Kitchen serves up a small selection of pho, a few grilled meat vermicelli bowls and an assortment of traditional banh mi sandwiches. Upon stepping up to the counter, though, I was a little confused. They have a glass case full of ingredients, but the menu only had pre-mixed options. Apparently, they have some sort of “build your own pho” option, but we decided to stick to the pre-made menu choices. The little tubs of meats and veggies looked fresh and appealing, so Allison and I both went the soup route in spite of the 95 degree weather.
For the most part, I enjoy soup in all of its forms. I can’t deny the allure of a creamy bisque or a rich chowder, but I typically prefer lighter broths. Asian noodle soups – especially pho, ramen and pancit molo – are probably my favorites and are really in a class of their own. After cruising the menu for a few minutes and chatting with the friendly staff about their favorites, Allison and I locked in our selections.
Wanting something rich and a little unique, I went with the Egg Noodle Soup. I’ve never had a pork-based pho before, so that really appealed to me. After ordering, I eagerly watched them assemble the bowl. To my surprise, it was a lot more involved than I thought. The sheer number of ingredients was intriguing: diced scallions, shaved white onion, celery root, pan-fried shallots, cilantro, pork broth, thin egg noodles and a hearty serving of char siu. It looked great and I loved the colorful ingredients.
I started off by trying the soup. It was plenty rich and I soon realized that there were a lot of distinct flavors. When you first taste it, you immediately recognize the sweetness of the pan-fried onions and the char siu. You then get a welcome bitterness from the celery and cilantro before easing into a rich, but not overly greasy, pork broth. The first thing that came to my mind was “Wow, this is deliciously complex!”
The egg noodles were thin and only gently boiled so that they retained a good amount of firmness, while a generous serving of roast pork topped the bowl. I’ll admit, this was definitely the part I liked best. Sometimes you get char siu that looks beautiful, but has no flavor. This serving was perfectly tender and sweet. Overall, the texture and ingredients were well balanced.
Allison decided to go with the Chicken Pho. Her dish was significantly less involved both in terms of preparation and ingredients. It was really a focus on dark meat chicken, rice noodles, chopped scallions and cilantro. I’m tempted to say that the broth was a bit like a consomme, but I actually think that it was even less flavorful. This resulted in bland chicken and I started to really crave the ginger fish sauce that’s usually provided as a dipping condiment. Having that would have provided a lot more flavor and contrast. The noodles were good, if not a little soft. Adding the bean sprouts helped bring some life to the bowl, but it just seemed flat and uninspired.
If you were to visit, I would have to recommend going with the soups that have a richer broth. The lighter ones just plain need more flavor. Don’t get me wrong, I can certainly admire quality ingredients and a subtle, perfected flavor profile. In this case, however, I felt that the more complex items were better executed.
While we were unable to decipher the origin of the “Spotted Cow” name even after quizzing the owner’s extremely friendly son, Allison and I both thought that this would be a good place for a quick lunch if you were in the area. It may not change your life, but if you choose carefully, it can satisfy your belly.
Spotted Cow Viet Kitchen
7655 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92111