You may look at me funny when I tell you that Thanh Loi Noodles is no different than any American diner. But consider the glittering neon lights outlining the edges of the windows. There are some random paintings on the wall and knick-knacks that don’t really signal any specific cuisine. There are always families or groups and a few lone diners populating the table tops, but it’s never fully at capacity. The servers tell you “anywhere you want” upon arriving. There’s the constant clink, clink, clink of cutlery being rounded up into emptied glassware that’s been a little too abused by an industrial dishwasher.
After you’re seated and handed a menu with thick laminated pages, and you see the pictures corresponding to food items and then read said descriptions of food – it’s then that the “this seems familiar” moment really comes in. You get it. It’s a diner. Except instead of hashbrowns, two eggs over-easy and bacon, you get a solid platter of barbecued beef and noodles, and maybe your favorite over-sugared drink – not an orange cream soda, but maybe a salted sour plum lemonade.
Like any American diner, the portions are hefty here, so don’t be fooled by the pile of fresh Thai basil and sprouts that come with any one of the 18 combinations of beef pho at this place (plus the pho ga, or chicken option). It’s a serious helping of protein – that can come in various forms of thinly sliced raw sirloin, meatball, oxtail, chicken, cartilage or tripe, to name a few – swirling in a bowl of well balanced, not-too-sweet, not-too-spiced and not-too-salty broth.
The titular pho noodles? They’re an afterthought considering Thanh Loi only offers a medium or large sized bowl. You’ll be too focused on the broth, and the ratio of broth-to-noodles supports that focus.
Venturing beyond pho, there’s always solace in a bowl of bo kho. In this case, the noodles make a difference. Chunky pieces of carrots combined with thick cuts of braised beef swim in thick, citrusy, anise-spiked bright red gravy – because to call it broth wouldn’t do justice to the viscosity and earthy richness. Your noodle choices can be your perfect match or your downfall, depending on how hungry you are. There is velvety ho fun (wide rice noodle), regular pho (which is the name of the thin rice noodle, not the soup), or a thick, starchy, yellow egg noodle. Think pot roast, if people actually used spices instead of masking the beef with Campbell’s cream of mushroom.
It’s not all soup here. The com dia (rice plates) or bún (vermicelli noodle bowls) are fun ways to discover the menu. Again, these combos have their own page in the plastic covered booklet. They offer specific combos – options as simple as noodles and a fried egg, to variations as decadent as two pork chops with eggs over rice. Proving my comfort food/American diner parallel theory: You can always add other bits and bobs to your plate, like shredded pork, egg rolls or a shrimp cake that rival any side of breakfast sausage.
You get it. Be greeted, sit down, order a bowl of pho, or maybe a rice plate – and put an egg on it.
THANH LOI NOODLES 10am-9pm daily. 1940 N. Main St., Salinas. 975-4549.