Matzo Ball Pho Is The Most LA Dish of All Time

“Every culture has a chicken soup,” says chef Phuong Tran. "It just made sense to incorporate matzo and chicken noodle soup."

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Apr 6 2018, 4:00pm

All photos by the author.

There’s a lot of concept mixing going on inside the new Croft Alley at The Standard, Hollywood. On one hand, you’re inside of a contemporary art-filled West Hollywood hotel. On the other, you’re sitting at an old-school diner counter staring at a glowing red kitchen window. The same contrasts abound on the restaurant’s menu. There are plenty of classic dishes to choose from, but they’re tweaked with unexpected touches—like a straightforward yogurt with granola that’s spiked with a drizzle of pure chlorophyll and a dainty cilantro blossom garnish. The most interesting mash-up of them all? The LA-as-hell chicken pho with matzo balls.

Phuong Tran at work.

“Every culture has a chicken soup,” the mastermind behind the pho, chef Phuong Tran, told MUNCHIES. “Chicken to me is a very universal, global meat only because it’s accepted by all religions and spiritual faiths, every culture,” says Tran. "The idea was I love a great matzo ball, having lived in New York and LA. It just made sense to incorporate matzo and chicken noodle soup. It wasn’t too far off base, but it gave it some attention.”

The pho and other dishes are served in big, beautiful ceramic dishes, a touch that modernizes the diner feel. Between the photogenic food, bright blue tabletops, and LA sunshine pouring in through the giant windows from Sunset Avenue, it’s an Instagram jackpot.

Tran originally hails from New Orleans, where discovered his passion for cooking when he was just nine years old. “We had enchilada day at school, and I’m Asian and I didn’t know what an enchilada was,” Tran said. “So my brother, sister, and I just literally missed lunch.”

Tran started cooking by replicating his mom’s omelettes, and they turned out to be a hit. “I saw my brother and sister transform, and felt the power of what I did,” he said.

While he was hooked, his mother was not on the same page. “She always shooed me away from the kitchen and said no, you’re not going to cook,” Tran said.

At 15-years-old, Tran got a job washing dishes at one of the hotels his father ran. “Much to his chagrin, I nagged him to work back there,” he said. “I loved every minute of it. Even doing dishes.” He went to college in Texas where he earned a degree in engineering, cooking on the side all the while.

After school Tran moved to New York City, then to Los Angeles and Napa, where he worked with the likes of Nancy Silverton, Thomas Keller, and Govind Armstrong. By 2005, he was ready to try opening his own strip-mall restaurant, Benley Vietnamese Kitchen, in Long Beach, California.

“Let’s just try it out; if I fail, no big deal,” he said. “It was French Vietnamese. I did my classical training and I did my native cuisine, polished it up but kept the flavors. After three months, we were in the LA Times. Life wasn’t the same after that.”

A few years later, he sold off his equity in Benley and opened Croft Alley on Melrose Place. The restaurant is nestled in the back of a coffee shop. It has no fire; they had to bring in induction burners and figure out how to cook food with limited equipment. “It started out as a little experiment, and we sort of evolved to having a cult following,” Tran said. “We’re so small that we went back to the roots saying that what we get that day is what we prep, and that’s what we serve, and then we’re out.”

The new Croft Alley at The Standard, Hollywood is like the original on steroids, Tran said. The menu is bigger because there’s more infrastructure to play with in a bigger space. The chef drew inspiration from the space’s diner aesthetic, turning to diners around the world for ideas. He thought about the cafes of India, Vietnam, and London as he built on his Melrose Place menu.

The new Croft Alley is open 24/7, and its breakfast offerings are available all the damn time. “To me, breakfast for a lot of people is at different times of the day. It shouldn’t be put into a time slot,” said Tran. “You have the film industry where writers are working until two, three in the morning. They’ll get up at two in the afternoon and have their first meal. So eggs are still on par at two in the afternoon.”

So go in and get the Shakshuka with soft-baked eggs and Bloody Mary Tomatoes at 4 am, or 4 pm. The world is your oyster, and the coconut risotto with brow rice and cucumber kimchi can be yours, too.