When I was in elementary school, the only thing I knew about the principal’s office was to avoid it. Because if I found myself in it, that meant one thing: I was in trouble.
That’s probably also true at Lemay Elementary School in the Lake Balboa enclave of the San Fernando Valley where, for the past four years, Principal Long Nguyen has overseen scores of teachers, staff, and, not to mention, hundreds of students (my kid too, at one point). However, if you happen to get a heady sniff of beef broth perfumed with cinnamon, star anise, and other aromatics as you enter Principal Nguyen’s office, you may be in store for a delicious bowl of pho made by the principal himself rather than a stern lecture.
During parent-teacher conference week—which is particularly taxing on teachers having to relay to parents how little Johnny or Jane is performing at school—Nguyen wanted to treat his staff to something special. To show his appreciation, he simmered hefty segments of beef leg bone along with pho broth seasonings for 6 hours. “I think my pho is better than my mom’s. Don’t tell her though,” said Nguyen. His pho secret: Tripling the recipe. “Three times the beef leg bones. Three times the fennel, cardamom, fennel, cloves, anise,” he explained.
The result is a broth with rich, profound pho flavors that awaken the senses. Fold in thin, raw slices of top round beef and sprinkle on some cilantro and chopped onion at the last minute to complete this simple yet satisfying version of pho bo.
Principal Nguyen does have a connection to the restaurant world though. His aunt owns and runs the well-praised Pho 21 in Canoga Park. As far as his favorite spot to take in a bowl of pho, “Besides places in Little Saigon, I like Pho Bac (in Northridge),” he said.
Although that day, judging from all the empty bowls and enthusiastic compliments to the principal slash chef, the best place to enjoy a hearty bowl of pho was not at any restaurant but in the teacher’s lounge at Lemay Elementary School.
Pho 21 Noodle, Grill and Vegan House, 21525 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, 818-854-6622
Pho Bac, 8454 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, 818-349-1613