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There’s a plethora of Vietnamese pho restaurants on the north end of International Boulevard in East Oakland — at least five in a two-block radius near Clinton Square. So it says a lot that Pho Ga Huong Que Café, right across from the park, continues to pack it in for lunch after more than 10 years.
The restaurant is your typical utilitarian Vietnamese pho spot — standard-issue numbered laminate tables, stacking chairs and fans for the hot days. The red-and-yellow awning outside just says “Huong Que Café,” but pho ga is often associated with its name because chicken pho is its specialty.
That means you won’t find the more common and popular beef pho. Instead, the menu is peppered with chicken dishes with only a few alternative items such as beef stew, oxtails or fish balls. There’s also a section of chao, or rice porridge, featuring, you guessed it, chicken (or you can choose a fish, seafood, and lean-meat-with-preserved-egg version).
Just like in Vietnam, pho is enjoyed for breakfast as well as lunch, which is why Huong Que opens its doors Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 a.m. Huong Que offers pho ga with several options: bone-in chicken, shredded chicken (dark and white meat or just white meat), chicken thighs, chicken wings or chicken intestines. You also get to select your preferred noodles, from the highly recommended ho fun (flat wide rice noodles), traditional pho rice sticks, clear noodles, vermicelli rice noodles or egg noodles.
The specialty pho ga features shredded chicken meat ($9.75 large/$8 regular). It comes with plenty of dark and white meat pieces that are tender and flavorful. The broth is a lightly colored chicken broth (compared to the darker beef broth) packed with chicken flavor. The pho is accompanied by a plate of bean sprouts to mix in (don’t expect a plate of mixed herbs like other pho shops).
The restaurant used to offer a pho ga with shredded chicken meat and intestines, but it has replaced that option with a simple chicken intestines pho ($9.75/ $8). Curious to try the intestines but not wanting to overwhelm myself with a full bowl of offal, I appreciated that I could order the organ meats as an add on (for $2.25). So I added it to a bowl of bone-in chicken pho ga ($9.50/ $7.75).
The pho ga came with a side of the restaurant’s house-made dipping oil, a Chinese-influenced sauce made with minced ginger and scallions. The sauce, which leans more on the brilliant lime-colored scallions than the ginger, brightly changes the complexity of the soup.
I found the bone-in chicken with skin to be fresher and more tender than the shredded chicken, but I ended up having to work more because of all the bone pieces. The kitchen doesn’t skimp on its add-on of offal, which included an array of textures from soft liver pieces, chewy hearts and semi-crunchy gizzards.
Boiled chicken is another specialty ($26.95 for a whole chicken, $13.75 for half and $6.95 for a quarter chicken). The chicken plates come accompanied with the lime-colored scallion dipping sauce and have tender flavorful chicken pieces with bone. The plates come dripping either in water from the boiling pot or oil. (Either way, there’s a distinctive sheen on the light-yellow chicken skin.)
But it’s not just chicken at Huong Que Café. You can also order beef stew, oxtails, fish balls or even Chinese won ton soup. But when I tried the com ngu vi huong duoi bo, or oxtail with rice, for dinner ($14.50), I realized it’s probably best to stick with the chicken specialties. The oxtails, which came in a small bowl of thin broth, were inconsistent in texture. A few pieces were chewy, making me gnaw at the bone to get some morsel of meat, while other pieces were tender or nearly fall-off-the-bone good.
A huge plate of Vietnamese broken jasmine rice comes separately with the oxtail dish, along with a bowl of chicken broth filled with Napa cabbage.
The prompt service keeps the meal moving – the waiters take your order upon sitting down and busboys appear right away to clean up the table to prepare it for the next guests. A pot of hot tea is complimentary, but you can also order Vietnamese iced coffee, Thai iced tea or a variety of Asian sodas.
Pho Ga Huong Que Café continues to be a solid neighborhood restaurant catering to families and workers looking for a hearty meal to get on with their day. Come in for the chicken dishes when you’re looking for a change of pace from beef pho.
Cash only. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.