Leo Safir / Daily Nexus

“Pho tonight?” Shea asks. He sits in front of his laptop, painstakingly debugging his code. 

“Yeah, tonight’s the night.” We make eye contact and nod in unison. I text our housemate to ask if we can borrow her car. She gives us the ok, just as she does every week. I grab the spare key from its place in the porcelain bowl, Shea puts on his satin 49ers jacket and we step out into the evening. The black 4Runner is just down the block. I drive. I always drive. Shea says he doesn’t want to be responsible for our lives. 

“Should I turn left or right?” I ask as we rumble down Camino Pescadero.

“We hit Noodle City last week; let’s do Saigon.”

“I was thinking the same thing.” 

We pull into an expansive parking lot encircled by the glowing lights of storefronts. We pass by Target, its red logo staring down at us like an eye of a cyclops. Nestled in the corner of this vast strip mall is a hidden Vietnamese gem, Saigon Noodle House. It’s one of two high-quality pho establishments within driving distance of Isla Vista. The other, Noodle City, is on Hollister Avenue.

“Why do you always put the parking brake on?” Shea asks after I pull into a parking spot. 

“It’s a reflex. It’s from living in the city.” I grew up in San Francisco, where parking on impossibly steep hills is routine. Besides offering a topographic challenge, the city is also a destination for incredible pho. I hardly feel like I’ve left home as we step into the bustling restaurant. We sit at the only table available. The waiter throws down two paper menus. 

“We know what we want,” I say without opening the menu. “Two number nines, large. And some ice water, please.” 

The soup comes quickly. The waiter emerges with a tray carrying our two steaming bowls and places them in front of us on the table. The rare steak slices turn from pink to gray in the broth. I pile my pho high with bean sprouts, jalapeños and basil. The greens are fresh and aromatic. Shea squeezes a lime in his broth. 

“Why don’t you add any Sriracha?” he questions as he scoops chili into his soup. 

“I don’t like to compromise the soup’s integrity. The jalapeños give me the spice without killing the flavor of the broth.” 

Trust me, the broth needs no altering. Both Saigon Noodle House and Noodle City have their recipes mastered. The beef broth incorporates star anise, which gives the pho its signature herbal flavor. While Noodle City’s broth is slightly sweeter, the portions at Saigon make up for it, as they are more generous with their noodles. The noodles are incredible as well — they arrive in an entangled mass, but as you prod them with chopsticks they loosen and integrate into the broth. They are delicate yet chewy, providing a slippery bite to the soup. The price is reasonable too — each restaurant charges under $12 for a large. Luckily, neither Shea nor I is vegetarian, since all the soup offerings contain meat broth. However, for those who don’t eat meat, Saigon has a special vegetarian menu displayed on a sign next to the door. Noodle City has an even larger selection, offering various combinations of broken rice plates, spring rolls and vermicelli bowls. While Shea and I stick to pho, there is no shortage of reasonably priced Vietnamese delicacies on both restaurants’ menus. 

We finish our soup and the waiter comes with the bill. It clatters on the table — Shea and I look each other up and down, questioning whose turn it is to pay. 

“I think it’s my turn to get it,” Shea says. He puts his card down. It’s funny, I think, all the methods we have for orienting ourselves to time: days, weeks, holidays, parties, our quarter system. Currently, Shea and I are oriented to a weekly pho regimen and this bill signifies the conclusion of yet another round. 

On the drive home, I can still taste the star anise and a hint of lime in my mouth. What I previously believed to be a San Francisco pho supremacy is being rightfully challenged by the hidden gems of Goleta. 

A version of this article appeared on p. 12 of the April 27, 2023 version of the Daily Nexus.