This first appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2017.
Los Angeles is pretty spooky at 3:30 in the morning. Without its usual sun-soaked, traffic-choked je ne sais quois, it's almost hard to tell what city you're in when it's dark and empty. It is at this ungodly witching hour that magic happens. That magic is pho.
I get to Nong Lá just before 4:00 AM. Instead of entering through the vibrant blue doors per usual, I walk around to the back alley and head into the restaurant kitchen.
Elaine Phuong opened Nong Lá with her brother Victor in 2012. They wanted to serve the Vietnamese food they grew up on, food cooked by their mother Khanh Phan. Two years ago, the family opened a second location, giving LA more access to their Vietnamese delights, like their off-menu, limited quantity Chef's Special pho with beef ribs and tendon.
Elaine seems anxious to have me in the kitchen, which I understand completely. The family doesn't want the world knowing the secret techniques and recipes they've worked so hard to create, and I'm a journalist snooping around with a camera. Despite the conflicting agenda, the Nong Lá team is still all smiles and welcomes me to watch the process.
Every morning, a Nong Lá cook has to get to the restaurant between 3 and 4 AM to start cooking their soups. In an industry already struggling to keep line cooks, finding someone to come in before sunrise is particularly tough.
"Yeah, it definitely is hard. Once we get good people we always try to keep them. Agusto has been with us since we opened our first one. Lino has been here since we opened."
I watch Lino and Agusto hoist heavy tubs of water into pots to get the broth going. Next, Lino throws in the beef ribs. Making pho on a large scale is a physically demand job. It's also mentally demanding. It's a delicate process that requires expert handling.
"It's temperamental. Some days the bones are juicier, so you get a beefier broth but everything else stays really consistent," Elaine said. "The amount of water we use, fish sauce, things like that need to always be consistent for the amount of soup we make on a daily basis."
Lino has been doing it for two years now. "It takes a lot to learn these things," he says of the process. At this point, he makes it look easy. He goes to sleep by 8 PM to make sure he's sharp the following morning.
"I need to get a minimum of six hours of sleep so I can be energized," he tells me about his routine (which doesn't include coffee—he isn't a fan of caffeine). "When you start waking up this early it's kind of hard. Once you get used to it, it's just normal."
After he chops onion for the broth, Lino throws them on the stovetop for grilling along with some bulbs of ginger. Once they're cooked, Lino smashes the ginger bulbs with a meat tenderizer, releasing the root's trapped aromatics. The room floods with the incredible smell of cooked ginger.
Back in the boiling meat pot, fat is collecting at the surface. While some restaurants will save this and serve it on the side, Nong Lá prefers to toss it. The Chef's Special isn't meant to be heavy.
"It feels very light when we do it. This is exactly how my mom would do it when we're at home, just on a larger scale," Elaine tells me. "We wouldn't change a thing about it. It feels like she's making it for us still but in larger quantities."
Growing up, Elaine's mother didn't make pho on a regular basis.
"It was a special occasion thing," Elaine says. "Even spring rolls were a special thing because they're so laborious to make. The thing with Vietnamese food, it's a lot of little ingredients that make up that one thing."
Lino removes the meat from the pot and gives it a rinse. The beef ribs are now ready to cook for the next seven hours. At around 8 o'clock, he'll add in Nong Lá's proprietary blend of spices that will forever remain a mystery to me and other outsiders.
The secret doesn't bother me one bit, and the pho is amazing.