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October 12, 1986|LINDA BURUM

While not yet crowding out Big Macs, pizzas or tacos, there is spirited competition among the pho shops burgeoning throughout Southern California. This Vietnamese noodle-stand favorite is now available from a spiffy chain, franchised stores and independent shops with branches. But dispensaries of this filling beef-soup-with-salad meal-in-a-bowl are still largely concentrated in just a few zip codes. And so far few pho (pronounced fuhaa) shops have attempted to popularize their fare; several write their menus only in Vietnamese.

In Vietnam, this nourishing dish is available around the clock as a quick breakfast or lunch in noisy, crowded cafes and work-a-day stands. In the evenings, vendors pedal portable kitchens through residential streets; their cry-- fuuhaas-- is a familiar one.

The chef, who may spend a lifetime cooking this dish and nothing else, serves up his long-simmered beef broth over mounds of pho (fresh thin square-edged rice noodles from which the dish getes its name), topped with rare, thin beef slices and meat from the stockpot. With a flourish, he garnishes each bowl with sprigs of fragrant fresh herbs and bean sprouts, wedges of lime, slivers of chili. Crunchy, cold and warm, mildly tart and spicy, all the elements are at once distinct and complementary.

In Los Angeles little has changed. Even at $2.75 a bowl Vietnamese consumers seek out and debate whose broth is best. The mere suspicion of an institutional-sized can of pre-made broth in the pho kitchen would ruin the place's reputation. Two plates accompany each serving: The larger holds a little mountain of bean sprouts topped with fresh basil and coriander leaves; the smaller, lime wedges and fresh chili slices. On the table are bottles of chili-garlic sauce, fish sauce and sugar.

With chopsticks in one hand a soup spoon in the other, you alternately slurp noodles and soup, stopping occasionally to toss in some of the fresh basil or coriander leaves, a little squirt of lime, a chili sliver or one of the table condiments. It's obvious why there is little conversation at lunchtime and why it is hard to tire of the dish: Each bite has a different taste.

Pho Hoa in Santa Ana was one of California's first pho shops. Locally, its numbers have grown to four under a franchising-style arrangement. (There are also branches in San Francisco and Falls Church, Va.) Pho Hoa sticks strictly to the business of making pho , and the menu lists 20 varieties. A closer look reveals these to be combinations of the same six traditional beef topping ingredients served at most shops: tai (thin slices of rare beef), nam (well cooked flank), gau (well-cooked plate or brisket alternating ribbons of lean and fat), sach (tripe), gan (tendon) and bo vien (meatballs) in any combination may be selected to top your noodles. Thus you may choose rare beef slices alone, or rare beef and well-cooked flank, or rare beef, chewy tendon and well-cooked brisket or tendon and tripe, etc.

Pho Hoa's servings are particularly well manicured, with sliced rounds of meat or tendon meticulously swirled atop the mound of rice noodles, freshly made by a local factory. (It's considered gauche to use dry noodles now that fresh are available.)

If you're extra hungry, the king-sized combination bowl with five meats, or dac biet , the large-sized combination, should be abundantly satisfying.

Pho Hoa, 15034 S. Prairie Ave., Hawthorne, (213) 644-4106. Daily, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.

410 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (818) 281-6123.

640 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 626-5530. Daily 7 a.m.-9 p.m.

2317 West 1st St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-7558. Daily 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

The chain of Pho 79 shops is complete with a logo and designer guest receipts. "In Saigon, Pho 79 was as famous as McDonald's," a friend explained. But there's no relation to the Saigon restaurant; they have merely borrowed the name to make everyone feel at home.

Like Pho Hoa, the restaurant's main concern is pho , and while the servings are not as artistically presented and Vietnamese friends say the broth may not be quite first-rate, it tasted great to me. Pho 79 is just a little more mainstream than many shops, offering colas and fresh orange juice on the beverage list and flan au caramel for dessert. With your pho , try crispy Vietnamese spring rolls (cha gio) or steamed fresh rice papers stuffed with meat (banh cuon).

Pho 79, 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 625-7026. Closed Mondays.

881 E. Anaheim, Long Beach, (213) 599-5305. Open daily.

7941 Hazard St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2490. Closed Mondays.

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